You may have heard the argument that concerns over plastic pollution distract from the fact that we have only 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius if we have any hope of avoiding climate breakdown. Yes, climate change poses the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.
To the critics of the plastic-free movement, I just have to ask:
Do you think this is all just about the plastic?
Okay, so some of it is about the plastic itself
- Since the 1950s, approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide and only 9% of that has been recycled. Guardian UK
- Every minute, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters our oceans. Greenpeace
- If we do not drastically reduce our plastic consumption, by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. Ellen MacArthur Foundation
- Because China will no longer accept our plastic waste (and rightly so), by 2030, the world will need to bury or recycle an estimated 111 million metric tons of the stuff. Bloomberg
- Micro-plastics are in our water, our air, our fish and even human stool. Guardian UK
But the zero-waste, low-impact, whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement is about so much more
It’s about what is in the plastic
Last year, the American Society of Pediatrics warned that “some chemicals found in food colorings, preservatives, and packaging materials may harm children’s health.” These chemicals include BPA (which hardens plastic), phthalates (which soften plastic), perfluoroalkyl chemicals (found in non-stick packaging) and perchlorate (to reduce static in food packaging).
What about supposedly safe alternatives to some of these chemicals, like BPS? An article in National Geographic, also last year, reported on mounting research which suggests that alternatives to BPA affect humans in the same negative ways as BPA.
Do you really want your food coming into contact with plastic?
It’s about what is packaged in the plastic
Would the Western diet—now sadly, the global diet—of highly processed, food-like substances have come to dominate the world were it not for plastic packaging? Almost all of the food that makes us sick—highly processed junk food packed with sugar, stripped of fiber and lacking in nutrition—requires plastic packaging. Indestructible plastic makes it possible for multinational companies like Nestlé to ship their food-like products around the globe and infiltrate developing nations with their junk.
This New York Times article explains that as the growth of food manufacturers “slows in the wealthiest countries, multinational food companies like Nestlé, PepsiCo and General Mills have been aggressively expanding their presence in developing nations, unleashing a marketing juggernaut that is upending traditional diets from Brazil to Ghana to India.” And because developing countries lack the necessary infrastructure, they have no way to deal with the ensuing plastic waste.
It’s about throwaway culture
Our throwaway culture deems many crimes against the planet as socially acceptable, such as fast fashion—shoddy clothes manufactured out of synthetics (i.e. plastic)—electronic gadgets that essentially self destruct within a couple of years, cheap toys that break almost as quickly as junior loses interest in them and consumer products that no one needs, such as self-lacing, rechargeable, data-collecting Nikes starting at $350 a pair. I’ll go barefoot.
It’s about our addiction to convenience
This afternoon, my daughter Charlotte showed me a video of someone making a smoothie with a bit of peanut butter in it—and by a bit, I mean 1.15 ounces squeezed from a plastic package. I had no idea these little packets existed. Has dipping a knife into a jar of peanut butter—peanut butter that, might I add, has been ground up for us—become too much of a burden?
Some silly Silicon Valley startup has probably received millions of dollars in funding for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich meal kit that contains these little packets of peanut butter—and jelly, a couple of slices of pasty white bread, a plastic knife and a plastic baggie to transport the sandwich to school.
It’s about embracing self-reliance
If all the Trader Joe’s and Safeways and other grocery stores in the US suddenly closed up—in other words, if we could no longer buy food—people would die. When else in human history have we been unable to feed ourselves? It’s insane. We rely on corporations to fulfill our every need and desire to the point of helplessness. Rely less on corporations—learn a skill like how to plant tomatoes—and we become more self-reliant.
It’s about rejecting consumerism
Reducing waste and rejecting consumerism go together like peanut butter and jelly (without the meal kit). Try as we may to buy our way to happiness and fill the spiritual void with more stuff, over-consumption makes us miserable. We can never have enough, we must continue to buy to get that short-lived, post-shopping high and we will never keep up with the lifestyles that we see on Instagram.
When you reduce your waste, you simplify your life. You live intentionally and closely examine your needs and your wants. You realize you need far less stuff than the marketers tell you you need. You reduce your consumption.
It’s about changing how we live
Yes, corporations must to stop polluting. They will not do this without consumer pressure and government regulation. Grassroots movements—like the zero-waste movement—begin with people demanding change, after which the movement works its way up to those with the power to make big changes. And changes have begun to trickle in.
Last month, the city of Berkeley approved a 25-cent fee on to-go cups in restaurants. The fees will kick in next year. “The ordinance, called Disposable-Free Dining, also requires restaurants to provide takeout containers by mid-2020 that are compostable and to provide only reusable plates and utensils for those eating in. It also says other disposable items, such as lids and stirrers, can be offered only when requested.”
This is fantastic.
But what is so horrible about making coffee at home? I’m not trying to take away anyone’s Starbucks, but how about we consume less of it?
If we have any hope of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, we must fundamentally change how we live. A merely greener version of our current consumer lifestyle won’t save us. A simple lifestyle might.