Giving Up Plastic for Lent
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Gabriel Lamug-Nanawa (Gabby), a Jesuit priest in Cambodia, who has a proposal for churches in his local area to promote Plastic-Free Lent this year. Last year, Gabby went on a plastic fast for Lent and found the experience to be not only good for the planet but an important part of his spiritual practice as well. I asked him to describe his experience from last year and his proposal this year. Here is Gabby in his own words.
Cambodia has had a tragic past and has only quite recently begun to open up to the modern world. Our cities are urbanizing very rapidly. But as people reach out and embrace modernity, a lot of other things such as disposable plastic is seeping through and is turning Cambodia’s beautiful rustic landscape into a littered mess. Cambodia does not need these problems, and perhaps this coming Lenten season will be a good opportunity to pray and discern together how better still to serve this beautiful country.
Last year’s Lenten season was my first time to fast from plastic, avoiding purchasing or consuming anything that came in disposable plastic. Immediately, I was compelled to consider the packaging and material of the things I ate and used. Our lifestyle here in Cambodia is already quite simple, so this abstinence quickly began to revolve around food. The first to go were instant noodles, of which we eat a lot, then cookies, candies, and other snacks that come in throw-away wrappers. Bottled water, though recyclable, still takes energy to process and is something that could be avoided in the first place. It was best to keep things simple and use my own BPA-free bottle.
I was then forced to be creative and look for alternatives. This is a crucial stage where many could get discouraged, but I hope more and more people get to cross this threshold. I began to use my own containers for things that I bought, and looked for food that was more traditionally cooked and packaged. Although sometimes that meant choosing not to eat something tasty, or simply not to eat anything for a while, it made me healthier and later realize that I do not need to eat all that I want to eat. After all, I wasn’t being deprived of nutrition, but only of a tasty snack.
The plastic fast actually helped form my experience of Lent. It gave me a sense of the desert by doing away with many items in my daily life whose effects I had not previously discerned. It led me to a reconsideration of my eating habits, my purchasing actions and values, and an evaluation of my own lifestyle and how I affect others, the greater society, and creation.
Proposal to the Church of Battambang, Cambodia, for Plastic-Free Lent 2013
(Download a PDF copy of the proposal to use as a model for your own congregation.)
“The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone…” Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Peace, January 2010
For many years now, during the season of Lent, the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang has incorporated environmental themes into the prayers and practices of the faithful. For example, some weekly themes identify the garbage around us with the garbage of sins in our hearts. This year, as the Church invites us once again to prepare our hearts through acts of penance, prayer, and corporal works of mercy, perhaps it would also be a good idea to be more mindful of the garbage we generate through our everyday actions and actually reduce our trash output by fasting from plastic. Thus, for the coming 40 days of Lent, let us try to abstain from purchasing or using items that come packaged in disposable plastic, as our way of reducing our own harmful impact on creation.
Fasting from food and abstaining from meat, from other things that give us pleasure, or from our bad habits, bring much spiritual benefits if we offer our sacrifices to God. We enter into our own desert experience with Jesus.
If we try to abstain from disposable plastic during this Lent, we can also reach our own deserts. We will have to think about the things we buy and why we buy them, to examine our consumer values and clarify what is important to us. Usually, we throw away disposable plastics without much concern or thought. But as it leaves our sight, it does not really go away; it just becomes someone else’s problem.
Thus, our abstinence from disposable plastics helps other people and the rest of creation. As we reduce the amount of garbage in our homes and communities, we reduce its harmful effects on nature and act in solidarity with creation.
3. WHAT IS WRONG WITH DISPOSABLE PLASTICS?
The main concern about plastic is that it is not biodegradable. Plastics are normally made of materials extracted from crude oil, the same type of oil that is used to make fuel for cars and motorcycles. The most common type of plastic bag is made of polyethylene, a new substance made by humans that microorganisms do not recognize as food. Since no existing bacteria can break down plastic, it cannot biodegrade like other organic materials. What happens to plastics is that it photodegrades. When plastics are exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation for a long time, the polyethylene material becomes brittle and begins to crack, breaking into many tiny pieces. This process is estimated to take between 500 and 1000 years, but even when the plastics break into smaller fragments it remains non-biodegradable and toxic for the animals and humans that eat them.
Plastics clog waterways and can cause floods in cities. Eventually, they make their way to the sea. In fact, plastics are the most pervasive form of ocean litter. There they pose a serious danger to birds and marine animals that often mistake them for food. Thousands of animals die every year from swallowing or choking on plastic items.
So why do we continue to use disposable plastic bags to carry our things for only a few minutes, but which will then become a problem for creatures and the Earth for hundreds of years?? It does not make sense.
4. WHAT CAN WE DO FOR THIS LENTEN SEASON?
- As you buy things from a store, try not to accept the plastic bag that they will usually use to put the items that you bought. Instead, put the purchased item in your own bag.
- Refrain from purchasing or drinking water from disposable plastic bottles. Recycling consumes energy and just because they can be recycled does not mean that they are actually recycled. Use your own re-useable water bottle.
- Abstain from the use of plastic straws, polystyrene lunch boxes, and other food items that come in disposable wrappers, such as noodles and candies. These items cannot be recycled and are either thrown away or burned, both of which are not good to do.
- If you do have to buy plastic, make sure that it is recyclable, and that you dispose of it in a way that will assure that it will be recycled.
- Of course, exceptions are made for medicines and other important items that offer no alternatives.
- Take good care of the things you already have so that they last longer and are not easily destroyed and thrown away.
Gabriel Lamug-Naà±awa, SJ
What Else Can Houses of Worship Do to Reduce Plastic Pollution?
Coincidentally, just yesterday I also received an email from a man who has invented a dishwasher rack to hold reusable communion cups so churches can get away from disposable plastic cups. The device itself is plastic, but it could save lots of disposable plastic in the long run. I thought it was pretty cool.
Has your church or place of worship instituted any measures to reduce plastic? What are they? And what ideas could you suggest this year?
I love Guided Products recycled binders & notebooks. Read my review.
I remember being in Cambodia during 1979 and there was not any plastic except for a few scraps. Plus, there were only a few hundred (yes, hundred) people living in Phnom Penh, the former capital city.
@Beth Terry There is an article on Care2 that is trying to make reuseable bags seem dangerous. What is your take on this article? (Sorry, I can’t link the article here)
Hi. What happens when you try to share the link? Would love to see what you are talking about. Can you email it to me? beth [at] myplasticfreelife [dot] com.
Gabriel has inspired me to give up plastic for Lent too. I an finding it challenging and thought provoking. I am writing a kind of blog on facebook and several friends are following it. Jonathan
That’s great! Are any of your friends following your example?
Not that I’m aware of although some have expressed that they had thought to do the same. There is also much interest in my facebook entry where I’m detailing my travails.
Love the modified dishwasher rack!
The churches that I have been in either welcome people to dip their bread in the large chalice or they have tiny metal chalices to drink out of. With our fear of germs and sickness it appears that more churches are moving to the tiny, individual chalices.
Just hope no one double dips Lisa. LOL.
And yes, the chalice of “wine” is on the table next to a plate of wafers, so people go up and just dip and take right there. I have been to churches who all drank from the same cup, and I just could not do it. I know the church is “one body,” and probably they all have great immune systems from it, but *shudder.*
Beth, yes I should have clarified–I did already know there are dishwasher containers for those little glass cups, but someone still has to fill those, and put them in the dishwasher, and then empty them afterwards, and put it all away again. . . and who is going to do that, since we no longer have groups of people already in place to swoop down and get it done? (Hence the little old church lady comment–they were the backbone of churches for so long, but where did they all go? I’ll tell you–they were emancipated from the kitchens in the 70’s and haven’t looked back ; ) So my point was just that we who see the problems and see possible solutions have to be willing to step up and be the ones who do the actual hands-on solutions. If we care about less plastic, are we willing to be that person who meets with the pastors to offer solutions, donates better materials, sees that it is used, etc? I’m hoping God’s people will have MORE reason than the average joe to say yes!
Lisa, so people don’t actually sip from the cup but get the wine from the dipped wafer? That makes sense from a hygienic point of view. I was a Lutheran for a little while, and I always hated drinking after other people. BTW, did you see the blip about the communion cup dishwasher rack at the end of the post? Didn’t know if you had seen that or if it was a coincidence you were mentioning plastic communion cups.
Diana, in my early twenties, I was part of a Pagan coven in San Francisco, and we used lots of plastic and styrofoam. Even back then (early 90’s) I thought it was weird that they were using so much plastic while talking about loving Mother Earth. I think members of any religion can be aware or unconscious.
I know I’m going on–but this is something I am passionate about, so thank you for making this topic, Beth! One more specific about communion–our church has the “wine” in a ceramic chalice, and people dip their “wafer” into it before taking. So, no need for all those little cups at all!
In the United Methodist Book of Discipline, it states that we believe in being good stewards of the earth and taking care of our planet. I thought that was pretty cool! Our women’s group at church just pledged to use glass cups instead of Solo cups for all meetings, and to use real silverware. Kudos to them for taking a stand against waste.
Whoops–should have completed that thought. By that I mean, if more of us stepped up and offered to be part of the solution, then change would come more quickly. I am part of a ministry for women at my church in Santa Cruz, and I volunteered to take care of the dishes for the desserts at our gatherings, just because I knew they would let me, and then I could make a difference. We are fortunate to be a very old church, with a big kitchen and lots of ceramic dishes–that were languishing in disuse. So before every event I make sure the dishes we need are clean, and I trolley them off to the sanctuary, and then at the end of the event trolley them back, wash them and put them away. It’s not that big of a deal, esp. when like-minded girlfriends join me, but it does take time and effort (the gatherings are usually around 70 people). I’m going to do it as long as I can, because I can, and I am hoping that small actions like that will be part of a bigger, positive change. It will happen slowly, but I do believe once people catch the vision, and are reminded of what is possible, the change will happen.
But Diana, I know of plenty of unchurched or new-Age people who cling to their daily plastic like it’s a holy relic. But I’m glad if you are saying Pagans are already on the anti-plastic movement–good for you. A lot of Christian churches are also trying to move that direction, because of the Biblical view that humans are the stewards of Creation. I think churches got into the bad habit of using disposable things just like the rest of the world did–just like those terrible plastic communion cups–and once they figure out that’s so not good stewardship they will change their ways. But those who participate in religious events that generate such plastic should be willing to put their money where their mouths are–the reason most churches won’t even think to use glass communion cups is because there are no longer little old church ladies washing everything!
A movement to more Earth-based religions might obviate the need for solutions from the churches. We Pagans don’t proselytize, but sometimes I think we need to start.
I’m not Christian anymore, but when I went to church about 10 years ago, communion was always served in tiny plastic cups. They were sometimes washed, but sometimes thrown away. I can’t think of any reason why steel or even glass cups couldn’t have been used instead.
Well, I’m glad I read through the whole article because from the title, it seemed like the idea was to give up plastic just for Lent, and then go back to the wanton craziness of purchasing and over-consuming plastic-packaged items as soon as it was over. Good to know that Gaby’s Lenten practice led him to a more mindful lifestyle–and inspiring good citizenship within his community.
I love the communion glass washing rack, however why is it made of plastic? I am going to try and get my two churches to get this :)
Good point. I guess it could be made of stainless steel. Maybe that would be cost prohibitive? I don’t know. I didn’t question it since the entire inside of my dishwasher is plastic. But if you write to the company and ask, please let us know what they say.
es I believe my whole dishwasher is made of plastic too, but I wish it wasn’t… My new philosophy is buy something that lasts forever… so looking at stuff made of plastic I know I, ironically, that it may last in some form forever, however, for what it is designed for it will not last forever because plastic breaks down… Stainless steel would have been a better option for the rack because it would last forever :) So I will write the company and ask why not stainless steel. Thanks :)
I think it is plastic because they are worried the glass cups need more cushion in the dishwasher–like the very elements of a dishwasher are themselves coated, so prevent chipping. Even industrial dishwashers use plastic coated stainless steel trays for sending things through.
Last year I tried giving up plastic for Lent. It’s commendable, a good excuse to try the Plastic Challenge, and a great learning experience. (Warning: lengthy comment ahead!)
As Gabriel says above, the only real challenge was food; I don’t often shop for anything else. I accepted the little produce stickers, (the FM here is summer-only), I could buy milk in glass bottles, but what about meat and cheese? We have one of the nicest fromageries in America where I live, and even their stuff is saran-wrapped. My best bet for meat in my own containers would be Sacramento, an hour away. I know, I know, I could go vegan, but I’m a hardcore cheese addict, and I crave meat, especially in winter. Here’s how it went:
Week 1: Easy – I had a bunch of stuff from before Lent that I needed eat before it went bad.
Week 2: Not bad – I can do anything for a week.
Week 3: Lasted until Wednesday, then broke.
I was standing there in the grocery store, craving chicken casserole and feeling like a hypocrite: eschewing plastic purchases while driving a car to the grocery store. I mentally screamed, “Screw it!” I bought two blocks of cheese, a whole chicken (at least it’s Styrofoam free), went home, and told my roomie my story. She took one look at my purchases and said, “That’s your food for the week, and it’s less plastic than most Americans buy in a day”.
Although I didn’t make it, I consider it a win. I freed myself of the plastic purchase guilt I had prior to Lent 2012. I also developed a great love for my durable plastics – my ski jacket that is both fashionable and warm, my wine aerator that makes a $4 dollar wine taste like a $10 wine… I will use them kindly until they die, and then I’ll be sad. I still buy disposable plastic, just less. Will I be giving up plastic for Lent again this year? No, although I have great respect for those who do. I will satisfy myself instead by living plastic-light, rather than plastic-free. And maybe my 2013 Lenten resolution will be to go petroleum-light as well, by riding my bike more often.
The point is not to be perfect but to do as much as you can and to recognize that were you run into limitations are places where we need to work to get the system changed. :-)
Thanks for posting this. What a thoughtful way to participate in the Lenten season.