Our Culture of Convenience

deborah san angelo

Plastic. It’s a marvelous invention that allows us to easily manufacture almost anything we can imagine, from paper clips to spaceships. It’s replaced many traditional materials such as wood, stone, horn, bone, leather, paper, metal, glass and ceramics. But because it’s so cheap, we use it recklessly.

Cheap plastic unleashes a flood of consumer goods, most of which are designed for one time use. This flood is then released into landfills and the environment at large.

We create an enormous and expanding range of products from this inexpensive, versatile yet durable material. But none of it is meant to last. When you watch the journey each various item takes after its brief service, it becomes clear there is no exit strategy in place.

The annual worldwide production of plastic is approximately 800 million metric tons, which is a lot when you consider that plastic weighs so little. In developed countries, almost half of that is used for packaging. Practically everything is packaged nowadays, from electronics down to our little squirts of mustard and ketchup. Some of the packaging is getting thicker and tougher. There are frozen entrees that come with their own steam-cookers fashioned out of plastic.

Polyethylene is the most common form of plastic used in packaging, primarily for bottles, containers and the ever-present shopping bag. These bags are one of the most common items in everyday life and are now at the heart of a fight raging worldwide. Many cities have already banned them from stores while activists push for more bans. Bangladesh has completely done away with them because they clog storm-drain systems, causing major flooding. San Jose, California reports a cost of $1 million a year to repair recycling equipment jammed with plastic bags. San Francisco estimates the cleanup and recycling of plastic bags at approximately $8.5 million a year.

Over the past 25 years, plastic bags have been one of the top items collected on International Coastal Cleanup Days. This calls up another negative aspect: plastic bags contribute to pollution. Here is a product that is inherently lightweight and practically indestructible. But coupled with our reckless negligence these useful qualities instead become design flaws. We use them once and then set them loose on the environment. Sometimes we can’t even help it. If there’s one in the car while you’re driving with an open window, it’ll catch and make a bid for freedom at the slightest breeze.

Once aloft, stray bags cartwheel down city streets, become flags flying from tree branches, wash into rivers and streams and out to sea. Bits of plastic bags have been found in the nests of albatrosses in the remote Midway Islands. Floating bags can look all too much like tasty jellyfish to hungry marine animals. According to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from eating or getting entangled in plastic.

Fifty or sixty years ago, there wasn’t much plastic out there. Now there are roughly 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean. A swirling mass of plastic trash spanning an area twice the size of Texas lies 1,000 miles off the California coast.

While we watch an endless stream of plastic particles become part of our environment, the plastic industry happily continues to churn this stuff out. Approximately 380 billion plastic bags are used every year in the United States alone. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many bags. Only 1 to 2 percent of them end up getting recycled. How is that any different than dumping oil directly into the environment?

The problem with plastic bags isn’t just where they end up, it’s that they never seem to end. All the plastic that’s ever been produced is still around in smaller and smaller pieces. The chemical bonds that make plastic so durable are also what make it so resistant to natural processes of degradation. Every convenient plastic bag that’s been used one time will be around long after we’re all dead.

The problem with plastic bags and plastic in general isn’t what it is but how we mismanage it. This amazing resource that can be used from everything to wrapping a sandwich to tethering an astronaut during a spacewalk has become an icon for the culture of convenience. We use it to mass-produce products specifically designed to be discarded, essentially manufacturing garbage, and worse. The only salient answer to paper or plastic is neither. Bring your own reusable bag.