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Things About Me: Plastic

May 16, 2010

I’m not the first person to add this video to a post about plastic,
but it just … says it, if you know what I mean.

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that I hated plastic.  It might actually be one of the worst things people have ever made.  It’s not capable of mass obliteration and wiping out entire cities like, say, a nuclear bomb or anything—in fact it’s not even capable of killing anyone, except maybe in contributing to a slow death or a life of bad health—but it’s not good for us and it doesn’t go away.  But since it’s cheap to manufacture it’s everywhere.  The result is a world filled with gaudy, low-quality crap that will be around for longer than it should (read as: it shouldn’t have been around in the first place).  One reason (of many) I’ve come to like fantasy settings is the lack of plastic.  Lord of the Rings: Justifiable war and no plastic.  The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: Me and a horse, no plastic (magic, but no plastic).

I can see nothing good about it. It accumulates and messes things up in ways I can’t even count. We put our food in plastic to preserve it, and by doing so let harmful chemicals into our bodies.1 When we’re done with those containers we throw them away, but there isn’t a good way to get rid of it. Organic waste deteriorates, but plastic doesn’t. If we put it in landfills it leaches poisons into our ground water. If we burn it it poisons our air. There has been a giant swath of this stuff in the Pacific ocean for quite some time.2 And—I’ll be damned—someone found something similar happening in the Atlantic.3 That seems pretty awful, but how about this? All of this oceanic plastic actually does break down. The bad news: that breakdown just means the poisons get into the water faster. Way faster.4

Since I have developed such a strong dislike for it (and really all other petroleum-derived synthetic materials that we don’t commonly think of as “plastic”), I try to avoid it.  Since it is so unavoidable, I do a rather pathetic job of this, and when I do end up buying pretty much anything, I have to admit to myself that I’ve had some small failure simply because whatever it is inevitably came with plastic packaging.

That aside, I still try, and as a result of my attempts I’ve just ended up feeling more eccentric than I really am.  Two examples:  (1) Most of my “outdoor gear” is military surplus stuff.  My backpack is cotton, though it was unexpectedly a knockoff of an Australian pack and was made in India.  My tent is genuine surplus and is all cotton.  Surprisingly it’s the driest tent I’ve slept in.  I’ve also been trying to use only a single wool blanket.  The downfalls to all of this are that the backpack isn’t terribly comfortable when loaded up, the tent is way heavier than a modern one, and a single blanket that isn’t very thick isn’t always very warm.  The upside is that I feel honest when I use it.  Put another way:

There is nothing appealing to me anymore about crawling into a plastic smelling, dank, dirty plastic tent at night after a long day out in the fresh air. We go to the woods for many reasons, but one of the most important is so that we as humans can feel again what life is like on Earth without the sensoral deadening of our modern society. So why is it then that we insist on wrapping ourselves in plastic and nylon at night? Even though we may stay dry or keep ourselves away form the creepy-crawlies, we are effectively cutting ourselves off from the wild at that point … 5

(2) I won’t buy any more fancy gadgets that modern tech makes cheaper every year.  Not very long ago (a handful of years, I guess), I would have probably considered myself tech-savvy and interested in the “advancements” made every  year.  I still didn’t buy most of it—I’ve never owned a cell phone, for example—but I did buy some.  I was slow to get a digital music player, but eventually I did.  I bought a digital camera when point-and-shoots became affordable—or more affordable than they were before.  I won’t buy any  more of it.

I can rationalize buying used and surplus stuff, however.  In my mind, if I feel like I can benefit from a good and I can find someone with what I want who doesn’t want it anymore, I am acting in a commendable way when I take it off their hands.  If I didn’t someone else would have, and if someone else didn’t, it would have ended up being thrown away, poisoning everyone and never disappearing.  And if I wanted it bad enough I would have ended up buying one new which, when I was done with it, would have also ended up being thrown away to poison and never disappear.  (Eventually this is going to happen to all of these goods, but it makes sense to get as much use as possible out of each one before it’s thrown away.)

My first mp3 player filled up, so I bought a used fourth generation 20GB iPod.  I spilled a drink on my digital camera last year and now (with both batteries) it will only hold a charge for a matter of days when left alone, when it used to hold a charge for many months, but I’ll live with it instead of buying another one.  When I decided to buy a laptop last year I simply refused to allow myself to buy new.  I had at least two people remind me that I could “get a netbook for like $200,” but I didn’t need a new one—because I didn’t need the computer in the first place.  I think of it like this: for every new electronic gadget someone buys there’s a used one that is going to end up in a village in China in which every old lady has cancer and the air smells like melted motherboards.

Even eating is hard.  I’ve figured out, to some extent, which places give out styrofoam and choose to go elsewhere.  I very rarely use straws or lids when I get fountain drinks (almost never), and I won’t take a plastic fork or spoon unless I’m in a bad mood.  I ask for paper plates versus boxes when they are available, paper bags versus boxes, etc.  I don’t even eat out much, but knowing other people who do on a daily basis, I feel bad simply through association.

Notes and links

  1. Bisphenol A > Health effects at
  2. Oh, This is Great at
  3. Huge Garbage Patch Found in Atlantic Too at
  4. Plastic Breaks Down in Ocean, After All — And Fast at
  5. Minimum Or Displaced Impact – About Leaving No Trace at
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