Back in January, when people still did crazy things like gather in groups, I was faced with the first of many No Garbage social conundrums: I was offered wine in a plastic cup.
I was at an art opening. The director of the art center, Anne, is a friend and was aware of our No Garbage project. So when I hesitated, trying to find the right words to describe what my problem was to the catering person, Anne kindly jumped to the rescue and said she’d see if she could find an actual glass glass in the kitchen.
After Anne disappeared, the catering fellow did some research, which is to say he looked at the bottom of one of the disposable cups. He informed me that I need have no fear, because the plastic was indeed recyclable.
Me: Hooray! I will take the cup home and add it to our single stream recycling! PROBLEM OFFICIALLY SOLVED THE END.
Oh dear. This feels like a veeery long time ago, before I knew so many things. Before I knew all the signs of the Plastipocalypse:
- Plastic only gets recycled 8 percent of the time.
- Currently only plastics numbers one and two are reliably recyclable.
- Plastics 3-7 get dumped on poor countries, polluting their environment. (Watch the documentary: The Story of Plastic)
- Even recyclable plastic can usually be recycled only once.
- Chemicals produced by plastic production and incineration are directly linked to climate change.
- Plastic is an environmental justice problem, as all the processes involved— from fracking to toxic incineration— disproportionately end up in low income communities and communities of color.
- Plastics do not break down, or go away- ever. They just get smaller and smaller, creating microplastics in our food and the environment.
- Due to microplastics, we are all ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic every week.
- All our poop now contains microplastic too.
- There isn’t just one giant garbage patch in the ocean: there are five.
- There aren’t seven kinds of plastic; there are tens of thousands, (that’s what the #7 “other” category is for.) They are all largely untested for effects on human health.
It’s a truly horrifying list, isn’t it? I learned these facts and more when I took an online college course this fall, a class unlike any other I’d ever taken.
The class is entitled Beyond Plastic Pollution. Offered by Bennington College it is taught by visiting professor Judith Enck, formerly a regional administrator for the EPA under the Obama administration. What you need to know about Judith Enck is that she is an environmental superhero, and I don’t say that lightly. If you’ve never heard of her before, from here on out you will notice that she is quoted in practically every article published on the subject of plastic.
Enck has made it her mission in life to make a difference on the issue of plastics, which she calls, without hyperbole, “The greatest moral threat of our time.”
Here’s one more fact I learned in class: We currently produce 350 million tons of plastic every year. Sound like enough? Apparently not: plastic production is projected to triple by 2050.
Or, in Enck’s words: “We have to stop making plastic if we don’t want to be buried in it.”
Fortunately there is some good news to be had, starting with the fact that the Zoom class was attended by over seventy students, all of whom struck me as highly motivated people who planned to take Enck’s dire message out into the world. But Enck and her compatriots have already been instrumental in several pivotal initiatives to date including:
- The New York State Plastic Bag Ban, which became fully effective on Oct. 19th. (If you know of a store still giving out plastic bags in New York State you can call this hotline to report them: 518-402-8706)
- New Jersey’s recent passing of the strongest anti-plastic law in the country: banning polystyrene, plastic bags, paper AND plastic bags, effective May 2022.
- Most significant of all, there is an effort underway to address the plastic problem at a national level. In February of this year Sen. Tom Udall (D- NM) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) introduced to congress the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act which includes bans and limits on polystyrene, plastic straws and plastic bags, a national container deposit program and a three year freeze on new plastic facilities in the US.
Now that’s exciting. If you think so too, call your congressional representatives and ask them to support Senate bill #3263 and House bill #5845.
You may be wondering: whatever happened to that wine glass at the art opening?
Well, after Anne left I started to doubt she would ever return, because you know, that’s how parties are. As the head of the art center I imagined her getting interrupted seven times and ultimately forgetting all about my glass, for which I certainly wouldn’t blame her.
So I took the “recyclable” cup of wine, misplacing all my confidence in that sneaky little “chasing arrow” triangle. Two seconds later who should return but Anne, holding a glass wine glass and looking confused as to why I was drinking from a plastic cup after she had gone to all that trouble for me.
Oh, I was embarrassed. But worse than that, I was disappointed in myself. I realized what a short little window of patience I had. God forbid I have to walk around and look at art for ten minutes without an adult beverage in hand!
I’ve thought about that moment many times over the course of the last year. We can be aware of the super-scary facts about plastic and our environment, but even so— can we be counted upon to act upon this knowledge? Even when it isn’t entirely convenient?
I think the key to making positive change on plastic is two-pronged. First, people need to be informed not once, but repeatedly, armed with facts and horrified by the imagery too (hello plastic straw turtle.) They need to watch movies like The Story of Plastic, to find out what is really happening as opposed to the lies and half-truths we are told.
Second, we need to then use this information to make actual legislative change, so the rules are fair, consistent for everyone and reflect the truths we know.
After that? Maybe then we can celebrate with a nice glass of wine. And I do mean a glass.
PS—I highly recommend the class Beyond Plastic Pollution, which is offered by Bennington College but you can take from the comfort of your own home. If you aren’t taking it for college credit it is only $100. It is being offered twice this coming Spring semester.