Steven Heller | Opinions

The Plastic Wars

We shall fight on the seas and oceans, We shall fight with growing confidence . . .
We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.

Winston Churchill’s famous rallying call urging England to resist the Nazi threat of world domination has resonance today. I don’t mean to suggest a false equivalency but right now we are involved in a new war. Plastic is a world dominating enemy—and all of us are complicit. Even the most conscientious recyclers succumb to the convenience of plastic and allow its monopoly on our lifestyles to challenge our resolve.

Who doesn’t recoil at the gruesome photographs of birds strangled by plastic six-pack rings and dead fish with innards filled with plastic refuse? It is impossible to avoid waterfronts free of floating plastic containers. Plastic is everywhere. Restrictions have had some impact on consumption, plastic bags are gradually being banned in many states and replaced by reusable totes, and plastic soda bottles fill the recycling bins (and produce income for bottle hoarders). However, plastics are an incontrovertible fact of life and death—we seem incapable to shake the habit or get along without them.

For those who recall Mike Nichols’s 1967 film “The Graduate,” the hero, a disillusioned 21 year old Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), is at a cocktail party his parents have thrown to celebrate his graduation from college. A friend of his upper middle class mom and dad takes Ben aside to give him one word of wisdom for the future: “plastics,” he says. Yet, rather than better living through the wonders of postwar science, in 1967 “plastics” suggested a cheap, ugly, and vapid way of life—the embodiment of every value of the older generation that is repugnant to Ben (and youth culture in general).

This existential rebellion notwithstanding, plastic took over the world in virtually every mass produced product and likewise became one of the world’s most unbiodegradable disposables. And inventions for producing all sorts of gimmicks are still being made from the stuff, like this handy watermelon carrying case (below).

Don’t think I’m throwing stones. I’m plastical. At this very moment, I am drinking my morning ice tea from a plastic cup marked with the recycling logo with numeral #1 (PETE — Polyethylene Terephthalate), which is the easiest of plastics to recycle. But sitting around my desk are a few less bio-degradable products: #2 (HDPE — High density Polyethylene), #3 (PVC — Polyvinyl Chloride) and #5 (PP — Polypropylene). I probably have #6 and #7 around as well. Like any addict, I swear that if I wanted to I can curtail my use of plastic cups (I’m trying), but more difficult are plastic straws.

“At first glance, bans on plastic straws might seem like a simple—and harmless—next step for the environmentally conscious,” wrote The Guardian about a proposed California ban. But the battle is far from simple. Advocates for the disabled insist that straws are a necessary aid, and I agree. So why not paper straws, metal, or bamboo? I frequent a few eateries that use paper straws and they work just fine. But, not all paper is eco-friendly or biodegradable. In the war against plastic, I’ve found that not everyone is on the same side—or equally knowledgeable.

I certainly do not have the answers. Recently, I bought an ice tea from a nice little shop in Great Barrington, Mass. The tea came in a plastic cup (the plastic lid was self service). Problem was, there were no straws to be found. When I asked the barista if he had any, his “NO!” felt like a sharp knife in my gut. No explanation, just “NO!” So, I walked across the street to another nice shop, where I found a container of straws for the taking. I’m fine with reducing straw consumption for the sake of the environment; But I ain’t going to take no attitude from a sanctimonious barista.

Worldwide, entire countries have prohibited plastic straws, with Taiwan working to eliminate all single-use straws by 2025. The United Kingdom and the European Union are considering similar measures.

Posted in: Ecology

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