Wipes are sneaky. Environmentalists can spend countless hours discussing the benefit-versus-harm of everything from glass jars and compostable forks to Legos, but when if you bring up wipes you’re likely to get a lot of blank looks.
That’s because wipes fly under the radar. They look like paper, but their whole purpose in life is to do what most paper can’t: hold together while wet. If you don’t know what I’m talking about think about the last time you ordered a messy meal in a restaurant and with your napkins they brought you a Wet Nap.
In fact, the Wet Nap was where it all started over a half century ago when it was invented and trademarked by a guy named Arthur Julius, among whose first customers was a little fast-food chain named Kentucky Fried Chicken. Today the wipe, or “moist towelette” as it is also known, has morphed into literally thousands of different products. There are wipes for polishing furniture, stopping acne, cleaning babies’ bottoms, and disinfecting countertops. There are wipes for applying perfume, lotion and deodorant, wipes for sanitizing make up brushes, soothing hemorrhoids, and removing nail polish. PS: Disposable face masks are wipes, too. (I first wrote about wipes in this post in 2021.)
Ninety-nine percent of wipes are made with varying combinations of plastics and cotton which are bound together by a big machine that sprays high pressure water at them until they become hopelessly enmeshed. Impress your friends when you tell them this process is called “hydroentanglement”! The material that results from this process is appealingly called “spunlace,” although I was disappointed to learn that it involves no lace and no spinning.
So, when we talk about staying away from Single Use Plastics and Disposable Plastics, or the harm they do to the animals and the landscape and our bodies, we are not just talking about Styrofoam cups and plastic take-out containers, but we’re also talking about wipes.
But it gets worse. Because even though wipes contain plastic, they feel like cloth or paper, so lots of people flush them down the toilet. Have you ever heard of a fatberg? It is a monumental sewer blockage. The term was coined around 2010, and in 2015 a British sewer company reported that two-thirds of their blockages are now caused by… wipes.
But what about “flushable” wipes? You may reasonably ask. The good news is that if a personal care wipe (the kind you clean your tush with) is labeled “flushable” it cannot contain plastic. Yay!
The bad news is that sewer experts will tell you that when it comes to preventing blockages, it probably doesn’t matter. This is because the wipe just doesn’t have enough time or agitation to disintegrate before it reaches the sewage pump. If we are lucky, the wipe gets filtered out and set aside to be either landfilled or burned. If not? Fatberg.
My take-away? Wipes are pretty much all bad news. Yes, they belong in some places— emergency medical kits so cuts can be quickly sterilized, for example. But on the whole wipes represent yet another example of the drive towards Extreme Convenience in contemporary culture, one that depends upon disposable plastic to exist. And if you’ve read any of my previous posts you know that disposable plastic represents such drastic, irreparable harm to our bodies, the animals and our environment that we need to kick our addiction to it, and the sooner the better.
I’ve been waiting for the Plastic Fairy to come and make four, enormous, 55-gallon black plastic garbage bags disappear, so I can have my basement back.
She’s coming, right?
While I wait, I’ve been pondering the weirdness of the extreme, life-changing, year-long project. Now that our family has completed three of these hornet swarms, I have realized something they all have in common: even when you are supposedly “done”- you are not done at all. In fact, that is when the hardest work begins.
Maybe this makes perfect sense. After all, the whole point of the crazy year-long project is to change how we do things so dramatically that it changes you. We come to see the world differently, behave in it differently; it is a yes/no, black and white world. And that’s difficult, but once you become accustomed to it, it eventually becomes an unthinking part of your behavior. What’s significantly harder is when the project comes to its conclusion, and you have to decide… what’s next?
No more black and white world. Instead, it’s “What shade of grey would you prefer? Here are four million to choose from.”
Getting to New Normal is a struggle. I am often accused by my family, quite rightly, of clinging to the rules of a project that is no longer in effect. Meanwhile, I find my family so anxious to soften the harsh rules that I fear we will lose all the new, good habits we worked so hard to establish. And then, what was it all for?
There are discussions, arguments, and usually some tears (mine) before compromises are reached.
So I should not be surprised that over a year after our Year of No Garbage concluded, it is still messing with me.
Hardest of all for me has been the realization that, yes, Virginia, you do have to throw some things away. That is, if you want to live in today’s society and not be in complete and utter denial. Mason-jar-toting bloggers aside, if you are not willing to make being Zero Waste your full-time occupation, it is- how do you say?- impossible.
Just to recap, here’s why: our society’s food system runs on plastic. And not just any plastic, but non-recyclable plastic. You’re being told it is recycled, but more than 90% of the time that is a lie. There is no one regulating this “system,” no “recycling police,” and the fox is watching the hen house with a fork in his hand and feathers on his face. Instead of being recycled, all that plastic is being landfilled, or burned, which is both terrible for us and terrible for the environment. The government knows this; the food producers know this; the packaging suppliers know this. And just like with the overabundance of added sugar in our food, they are turning a blind eye to the devastating consequences, hoping no one notices or says anything, because change would require money. Money that cuts into their profit margin, and presumably their budgets for jet skis and genetically engineered pets.
Which brings me at last to how I came to accumulate some 220 gallons of clean, washed and dried plastic food packaging in my basement.
It started out innocently enough, because during the actual project I thought I had non-recyclable food packaging all figured out: I would send it all to the wonderful New Jersey-based plastic recycling business, Terracycle! Which I did. Sure, it was expensive, but once we cancelled our curb-side fake recycling, I figured out we were actually saving money in the end. Terracycle was my hero.
Then, after the project was over, I started hearing things about Terracycle- icky things. Rumors. A lawsuit had been filed. An old, ugly question kept reemerging: where was the proof Terracycle actually recycled the material that was sent to them? Beyond a few generic YouTube films showing machinery at work, was anybody able to independently verify what was going on there? (You may recall that during our project I had requested a facility tour and was told flatly that Terracycle did not conduct tours.)
It was starting to look like Terracycle might just be a huge greenwashing scheme that took money from both well-intentioned consumers and image-conscious corporations. So now what?
Denial is always an option! Reader, I just kept right on washing those plastic packages. Sure, I tried at every opportunity to avoid them altogether, and with some foods- a very few- that is possible. But meats and cheeses? Anything frozen, anything in a bag, anything with a heat seal, interior tray or pull-off tab? During a pandemic that made everything harder, more germophobic, more complicated, and that was now, seemingly, never gonna end?
There had to be another answer, there just had to- I was determined to sit tight until I found it.
Steve kept asking, where was all this plastic gonna go? I didn’t know. We had cancelled our curb-side service and decided Terracycle was too sketchy. Yet, I couldn’t bear the thought that after all we had been through, and all we had learned, we were just going to go back to where we had started: throwing most plastic away.
By December entering the house from the basement garage was getting increasingly difficult because of this Plastic Gauntlet. Even though I had consolidated it all into just four black bags, Steve pointed out that this still did not solve the fundamental problem. Which is to say, we were keeping what at this point could only be considered… garbage.
Gasp! As far as I was concerned, “garbage” was a four-letter word. After a year of not throwing anything away, characterizing something as “garbage” seemed to me simply a failure of the imagination. Yet, as the months rolled by, it was dawning on me that society did not agree with me, and that was a problem. No one was going to take these enormous bags of clean plastic off my hands.
The Plastic Fairy was not coming.
So I made Steve a promise: I would concede. I would take these big terrible bags to the dump and pay for them to be classified as trash, hauled off for landfilling or burning. After January first. Because that way I could see how much we had accumulated in the six months since we stopped sending it to Terracycle.
And so that is what we did. It was not easy for me to part with those big ugly bags of plastic. Probably it is the hoarder in me, that gets attached to the very weirdest things and can’t let go. But, I’d like to think it is also because I was resisting doing what we are all supposed to do: Pitch it and forget it. I can’t forget it. Because those black bags full of my single-use plastic will be out there in some landfill for the next several hundred years, at least. Unless they get incinerated, in which case they will be reborn as toxic fumes and a pile of toxic ash one-third the size, which will then sit in a landfill, for the next several hundred years.
But it is now a new year. With the advent of 2022 we have at long last gingerly installed a new system in our kitchen that consists of one recycling bin and one —I have a hard time even saying it— garbage. (Steve has jokingly labeled it the Bin of Shame.) It is a measure of how much we’ve changed, I think, that at first we entirely forgot to put an actual “garbage bag” in the bin, because we are so used to everything being washed and clean, including the Saran Wrap. Whereas once we put an overflowing 64 gallon container at the curbside every week, today our household of five creates less than a 13 gallon kitchen bag worth of garbage per week. That’s about one fifth of the trash our household once generated, all of it non-recyclable plastic.
You could say that’s a significant improvement, and it is. But this seems to me to be how far we can go with personal responsibility, and I want more. In the absence of the magical Plastic Fairy I’ve realized what we really need is the Legislation Honey Badger.
Through legislation we can put the onus squarely on the producers of plastic to change their ways. We’ve all seen how people can change their habits overnight, if they need to. After plastic bags were banned in our state, our local supermarket has born witness to the daily miracle of ordinary people bringing their own bags to the store. And following the ban on Styrofoam, our local restaurants have demonstrated that customers can take their leftovers home equally well in paper containers. I have yet to hear of anyone psychically traumatized for lack of a plastic straw in every beverage.
More change is possible. After taking the online class “Beyond Plastic Pollution” through Bennington College I’ve become part of an anti-plastic activist network. This group is working to let people know that lies and greenwashing are being used to keep consumers ignorant and complacent. Is Terracycle one more piece of The Big Lie? Time will tell.
Personal responsibility goes far, to be sure. But it only goes so far, and that’s when we must turn to the honey badg- I mean, legislation. If the pandemic has taught me anything it is that people have the power to change quickly when the need arises. We could eliminate unnecessary single use plastic tomorrow, and the environment, animals, and people everywhere would all be immeasurably better off for it.
We don’t have to struggle through a year of no anything to get there either. All we really have to do is decide: what’s next?