This Monday, I was happy to be the subject of an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Green Space columnist Sandy Bauers and quite pleased with her article, “She wants to say 2 words: No Plastics” (PDF), and follow up blog post, “Purging the Plastics.” I was especially honored to be interviewed by Bauers because she “gets it.” Green Space is her column about how to reduce your carbon footprint in everyday life. It appears every other Monday in Health & Science. I stumbled upon Sandy’s year-end article, “Doing The Little Things That Will Save The World,” and was particularly delighted that her #1 and #2 steps were plastic-related: Shop with reusable bags and Drink tap water.
Well, the thrill of the article lasted through this morning when I got an email from Michael telling me that Sandy’s piece had made the front page of Fark.com. Now, I had never heard of Fark until this morning, and based on what I’ve seen there, I don’t think my life has been any less rich for the lack. Still, as I read each mostly negative comment, my heart sank progressively lower. Not because I took the comments personally. How can I? Their authors don’t know me. The comments are a reflection of the writers, really. But it’s just so disheartening to know that such hatred and bitterness and plain ignorance exist in this world.
So, okay, I’m done whining. Some of the comments are actually pretty funny in their caustic way, especially if I imagine they are directed at some other plastic-free blogger who is not me. Love the photos of and references to plastic blow-up dolls, although Michael wasn’t so thrilled about them. (My knight.)
If you have followed the links from Fark.com and found your way to this blog, I’d like to try and answer some of the more glaring misperceptions.
First, many people seem to believe that recycling plastic will solve the problem. Recycling plastic is important, but it’s better referred to as downcycling. Plastic containers, for example, are not recycled into new containers but into other products like lumber or outdoor furniture. Even the plastic yogurt containers recycled by responsible companies like Recycline into toothbrushes and cutting boards are actually downcycled, since the manufacturers of the yogurt containers continue to extract virgin materials for their disposable products.
Furthermore, recycling is a business like any other. Curbside recyclers must find markets for the materials they collect. The biggest market for plastics is China, so most of our plastic is shipped overseas. Unfortunately, China doesn’t necessarily have the same standards of worker and community safety as we do, and towns like Lian Jiao have become toxic waste dumps for our plastic “recycling.” Sky News recently released a video showing the heartbreaking condition of this town that has become the waste bin of the western world.
But with the recent downturn in the economy, the Chinese market has dried up, and as the NY Times reported in December 2008, much of our recycling is actually ending up in the landfill.
What’s the solution? Reducing our consumption of disposable plastic! Finding plastic-free alternatives to plastic and switching to reusable bags, bottles and containers are first steps to solving the plastic problem.
Second, there is a common misperception that if the plastic Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre were such a problem, we should be able to see it from space. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I say unfortunately because if it were so visible, it would probably generate much more attention. In reality, the particles of plastic are so small and extend to such a wide area that they are nearly impossible to clean up. Expedition crews have collected fragments using trawls that skim the surface of the ocean. So what’s the big deal about such tiny pieces of plastic?
Sadly, they are entering our food chain as they are caught in the zoo plankton, the lowest level of the food chain, and are then eaten by bigger and bigger fish. There are also pre-production plastic particles, sometimes referred to as “nurdles” that resemble the fish eggs that are food for many marine creatures. According to researchers who studied the gyre this past winter, there are areas in which the ratio of plastic to plankton is 46:1. A great article to read for an introduction to the problems of plastic in the marine environment is “Plastic Ocean”.
Third, many commenters had funny things to say about the first sentences of the article which referred to my making homemade mustard to avoid plastic mustard containers. First of all, I am well aware that there are brands of mustard that come in glass jars. The real point is to avoid all types of unnecessary packaging. Here’s the recipe. The mustard powder and seeds are sold in bulk bins at Whole Foods with zero packaging if you bring your own container. Just mix with vinegar and spices. Easy easy. Many folks do it from scratch just because it tastes better.
Fourth, “She’s dumb. I hate her.” I just wanted to copy that one because it makes me smile. Reminds me of my brother, and that’s all I’m going to say.
Fifth, “I often wonder what I could do to make the world a litle better, just as this woman is trying to do. Then I realize that I don’t really give a rats ass about any of it.” Okay, that one makes me laugh and cry at the same time.
Sixth, getting serious again. Chemicals leaching from plastics into our food is indeed a problem. In addition to phthalates from PVC, styrene from polystyrene, and Bisphenol-A from polycarbonate, there are other possible leaching problems associated with PET and PP plastics (#1 and #5).
Seventh, glad some of you are worried about the glass straws breaking. Actually, they are made from a super strong glass that is guaranteed not to break. The company is called GlassDharma, and they are actually very cool.
Eighth, regarding plastic for medical reasons. Obviously, if I needed a blood transfusion, I would be grateful for the plastic blood bag. I would not, however, be thrilled about the DEHP leaching from the bag into the blood and into me. There are safer plastics for medical uses, and many hospitals are switching to them.
Ninth, regarding the “bareback” comment. Don’t do it. I’ve addressed that issue here. Enough said.
Tenth, oh forget it. I’m tired and have to go to bed. I haven’t even reached the second page of comments. Questions? Please ask me directly. Or ask some of the authors of the blogs linked on my sidebar. Happily, I am not the only plastic-free “complete nutter” out here. Our numbers are growing!
Oh, and P.S. There were a few very nice comments. Thank you. You know who you are.