Ubiquitous plastic

 When most people think of the dangers of plastic, they generally have in mind common disposable items such as plastic grocery bags and water bottles. (Of course, there’s also the danger of “using plastic” as in credit cards, which is a whole different problem – though one that no doubt has contributed much to the production and sale of so many consumer items made largely of plastic.) Certainly those items can be a problem, and are often one of the most visible signs of pollution by consumers.

But the book I’ve been reading, Moby Duck, has made me more aware of just how much plastic I use every day. (It’s a fascinating book, part travelogue, part quest, part history, part science, and I’ll review it once I’ve finished reading it.) I’ve known for a long time that we use more plastic today than people did when I was growing up, and that we used more plastic then than when my parents were growing up. But the increase has been gradual enough that I haven’t really paid much attention.

I know I had plastic toys when I was a child – I played little enough with dolls but I remember having some, and their bodies were made of plastic, as were the baby bottle for the baby doll and the tiny dishes for the girl doll. My watercolor paints came in a plastic case, and the ink refills for my Paper Mate pen were made of plastic.

In the kitchen, though, there was very little plastic. My mother, ever concerned about possible contaminants, distrusted plastic containers for food. (It wasn’t just plastics – she refused to allow aluminum pans, and banished a Magnalite pot to the attic. As a young adult I retrieved it, and it is my favorite pot to this day.) No plastic pitchers, no Tupperware, and we used waxed paper for wrapping sandwiches.

I’ve been using plastic for so long, I have to really think about it to remember the containers things came in back then. I can remember glass milk bottles from the dairy farm, left in the insulated container on the back porch, but I was very little then. For most of my childhood I drank milk from half gallon cartons, and later from plastic gallon jugs – but my mother bought raw milk in quart bottles from the health food store.

I remember bread in plastic bags, but when I think hard enough I can also remember bread in waxed paper bags, Pepperidge Farm Oatmeal Bread and Corn & Molasses bread. (Corn & Molasses was my favorite; I wish I could buy it today.) I’m so used to buying peanut butter in plastic jars that it seems it must always have been that way, but I’m sure that it came in glass jars that we reused for leftovers.

TV dinners came in aluminum trays and were covered with foil. They were my favorite meals, containing such delights as fried chicken, french fries, and apple cobbler. The Italian was one of my favorites, and actually persuaded me that spinach could taste good. I don’t know when “TV dinners” turned into “frozen dinners” and microwavable plastic trays replaced aluminum, but either their quality waned or my tastes changed, because I don’t think they’re that great anymore.

When I had a baby, I was very grateful for all the wonderful plastic products that were available. I can’t imagine having to use glass baby bottles, or not having plastic toys that are safe to teethe on. Because of plastic I could buy cheap, colorful toys that would not break, and use child-safe caps on medicine and install child-proof latches on cabinets.

I can’t even imagine what my laundry detergent would come in if not a plastic bottle. Did they not sell liquid detergent until there were plastic bottles to put it in? And what did they used to put on the end of a shoelace to keep it from unraveling, before plastic? I know that toothbrushes were once made of bone handles and animal bristles, but I’m glad I never had to use those.

I looked around my kitchen this weekend, trying to imagine what would be left if all the plastic disappeared. I would have three or four glasses and a few plates and bowls. I’d have plenty of silverware (jumbled in a mess in the drawer lacking plastic dividers), but few usable utensils. Some of my pots and pans and sharp knives would lack handles. There would be no handles or knobs on any appliances, and some small appliances such as the coffee maker would be reduced to almost nothing.

My refrigerator would be a mess as all the shelves would be gone. If the food in plastic containers vanished with the containers (otherwise I’d have an even bigger mess), I think I’d have some salsa, pickles, and a stick of margarine. Oh, and some ice cream in the freezer. (I guess the grapes would be left now, too, because last night I took them out of their plastic bag and threw it out along with a handful of very mushy grapes.)

The bathroom would be even worse. The toilet would remain but I’m pretty sure the flush mechanism would lack some essential parts. The tub would remain but I wouldn’t be able to take showers (no shower head, and no wall except bare studs). I’d have no handle on the sink, no brushes, no cleaners (except bars of soap) either for my body or the room, no cosmetics, and very little if anything on the shelves where I keep medicines and first aid supplies.

At first I thought the bedroom would be better. I’d lose some hangers, and most of my buttons and zippers, but the furniture is nice solid wood with metal handles. Oh, but we have a waterbed, and the water is most definitely encased in vinyl. My new CPAP machine would be gone, along with the telephone. And as – unlike my mother – I don’t insist on 100% cotton, I’m not sure how much of my clothing or linens would be left either.

The rooms that would lose the most, though, would be the family room and computer room. I hadn’t thought about it until the author of Moby Duck pointed it out, but consumer electronics all depend on plastic. There are other ways to assemble electronic components besides printed circuit boards, but they’re not used much anymore except for prototypes and certain high end audio equipment. Without the plastic from which inexpensive printed circuit boards are mass-produced, there would be no PC’s and no TV’s. And of course there would be no CD’s or DVD’s, so we would have no music (even the older cassettes and records used plastic), no movies, no video games.

These days, all sorts of things have printed circuit boards, not just the electronics used for entertainment. I know microwave ovens do, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most modern appliances depend on them. I’m pretty sure modern cars require them also. Of course, if all plastics vanished from my life, I wouldn’t need a car, because I wouldn’t have a job (no computers means no IT department) and I would have no money to buy anything at the store.

Not that I expect plastic to vanish. Attempted bans are generally limited to certain kinds of plastics (such as Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA) or certain uses for plastic (grocery bags). Efforts are mostly to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” rather than eliminating altogether, as the economy clearly runs on a great deal of plastic. There is also research into bioplastics, plastic materials made from renewable biomass sources rather than from petroleum.

I’m sure that Moby Duck is not going to turn me into what my husband (and Rush Limbaugh) would call an environmental wacko. But it’s made me more aware that the problem with plastic is a whole lot bigger than grocery bags and water bottles. And now I need to go finish reading the book so I can write a proper review of it.

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3 Responses to Ubiquitous plastic

  1. modestypress says:

    Unless we plant more seedlings, we will run out of plastic plants.

  2. Pauline says:

    Not sure if you’re being serious or not, modestypress, but one of the problems with bioplastics is the possibility that it would lead to deforestation in order to plant more crops to make plastic from. Plus it takes fossil fuels to plant and harvest those crops and convert them to plastic.

    I’m hoping that with time and research they’ll find ways to do it efficiently enough that it will be a workable solution – or at least part of a workable solution.

  3. modestypress says:

    Pauline, mostly I wss being silly, but (as usual) your comment is sensible and informed, and (as usual, unless we are talking about world view), I agree with you.

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