Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Plastic Uber Alles

I'm not techno-phobic nor am I a curmudgeon who believes that it was always better in the olden days then it is today. I like what modern technology has provided for us, or at least some of that technology, and some of its uses. No, the olden days weren't better as regards what medical science knew. Yes, people in different parts of the world were more isolated from each other, and from news about what was going on elsewhere. But there were some advantages to those olden days that I wish were still available. Let's talk about plastic, as one example.

Back when I was younger grocery bags were made out of brown paper. Now, one could argue that using paper was a sure fire way of destroying natural resources. On the other hand, those paper bags were fully recyclable, in many ways. What school child didn't use them to make book covers from? Some people cut them up for note paper. But eventually, when they got tossed into the trash dumps, they did not sit around for decades, leaching chemicals into the ground, as today's plastic bags do. Many major supermarket chains are trying to "go green" and encourage their customers to buy bags to hold their groceries in that aren't going to be tossed in the trash; they can be reused many times. These markets will even give you a 5-cent credit for every one of the reusable bags you bring with you and use to pack your groceries in. Just recently Mayor Bloomberg of NYC gave us another possible reason to "go green" and use permanent bags. He is proposing a 5-cent tax on every plastic bag used in commerce and industry in the city. That means that every time you go shopping, at any kind of store, you will be paying for those bags your purchases are put in.

Then there are the myriad electrical-type items made from plastic. Think computers and cell phones as examples. In NYC you aren't supposed to put this class of items into the regular garbage. One excellent reason is that they don't decompose in a landfill. Another is that they contain materials with chemicals in them that are bad for humans when leached into a landfill. In our borough there is a twice-yearly borough-wide mass collection of these types of items. They are then sent to specialized recyclers for decontamination and recycling, where this is possible. Not all areas of the country do this type of recycling. Our landfills are being inundated with items that aren't going to break down into usable anything, or won't do so in less than 4 or 5 decades, if then. Our fascination with electronic gizmos, and our constant eagerness to ditch one gizmo for its "new and improved" model is putting a strain on our ability to throw these things away.

Plastic is common as a main element of those "throw away" items we all have in our homes. And some of them are recyclable and some of them are not. Checking the recycle numbers on those ubiquitous containers that take-home food stores use will show that NYC does not accept most of them as part of the city recycle program. A good few years ago Glad and other manufacturers of plastic items came up with a whole line of "disposable" plastic storage containers. The idea was that you didn't have to worry about scrubbing them or storing them or worrying if they cracked. Just dump them into the garbage or lose them or give them away without worry. Well, for one thing, those disposables are not all that cheap, particularly when compared to the price of permanent storage containers. And for another, check on their recyclability. Those disposables are going to come back to haunt us. I admit to having bought some of the disposables, because their size/shape was what I needed. And I have yet to dispose of any of them; they're still in use years later.

Then there is a different type of plastic which is causing us a "green" problem of another kind: credit cards. Credit cards don't look like real money and don't feel like real money. And we too many times act as if they don't represent real money either. It's so easy to whip out a credit card and pay for anything and everything our hearts desire without ever counting the cost. When items are paid for with cash you can't make $20 stretch to pay for a $170 item; either you have the actual money or you don't make the purchase. But plastic, that magic invention, allows us the fiction that all we need is a credit card and we can afford anything. And this type of plastic also leaches dangerous "chemicals" into our environment; they produce the poisonous substance called debt.

I'm not a rabid environmentalist, just a practical one. You can't keep fouling our land and water supplies without eventually paying a heavy price. When it comes to plastic, we need to be practical. We need to temper our consumerism with common sense. And we need to stop viewing credit cards as magic wands. I'm not advocating getting rid of all plastic. I am saying we need to think before we toss, think before we buy and think before we charge.


Mike S. said...

Actually, under the conditions of a modern sanitary landfill, paper sits around as long as plastic; nothing biodegrades in a landfill, not even food waste. And the plastic bags get reused, at least in my house, as lunch bags and to pack my work clothes in for my bicycle commute. And my supermarket takes them back for recycling. The are also much lighter than paper bags, meaning a truckload lasts the store far longer, saving fuel.

Rae said...

Mike, a lot of states have paper recycling so that the paper never gets into a landfill. And while the plastic bags may be lighter in weight you end up using more of them. My store double bags all the heavy items because the bags would rip otherwise. And they are smaller then the paper bags used to be so you are using more of them again. I don't imagine there is much fuel savings on the shipping.

Anonymous said...

I started bringing reuasable bags to the gorcery store because they offer a small discount for each bag I use. Since then I've found that the reusable bags are easier to load/ unload from my vehicle than plastic ones. When I'm planning to buy frozen items on warm days, I bring a soft-sided cooler to slow down thawing of ice cream & similar items.

I use grocery paper bags to store fruits & vegetables. The potatoes I buy are sold in plastic bags, so I transfer them to paper bags to help them last longer. And paper bags are also useful for ripening fruits such as pears or peaches.

Debby said...

Electronics are a pain to get rid of. We put an old radio and an old tape player into the trash because we didn't know what else to do with them. We got a warning ticket for putting them into the regular garbage and they were left at the curb. The ticket said you have to bring them to one of the special sanitation department collection areas.

Rissa said...

If plastic grocery bags are a problem then garbage bags are an even bigger problem. You can reuse the grocery bags or bring them back to the store to be recycled, but what about those millions of plastic garbage bags? Do they get emptied at the dump and then recycled or are they just buried along with the garbage?

concernedjewgirl said...

The technology exists to recycle both paper and plastic. Its the people that are the hindrance. In our building there are recycling bins on the first floor for both paper and plastic. MOST of our neighbors don't even bother. They just throw everything into the garbage. Its just a matter of mind set. We try to recycle as much as we can. Bottles, containers, paper, plastic milk jugs...mostly everything. We probably throw out garbage no more than once a week in a large bag.
I know that in Canada they do a much better job of recycling and making people recycle. In fact in Toronto there is recycling for paper, plastic, compost and then regular garbage pick up. The garbage is what you pay for...everything else no fee. SO MOST people recycle. Of course there are those that live in high rises where that is not an issue...and everything just get's dumped into one...unless a person actually cares!

It all boils down to people and choices. If a person chooses to recycle they will. If not, then they won't.

ShanaMaidel said...

Oh it already is a problem Don't you wonder about the Ocean?

A Living Nadneyda said...

ProfK - Good points, all.

In a decade or two we will look back at today's plastic bag usage in total disbelief at our ignorance.