Tag Archives: plastic bags

Take the time: Nick Werle on Free Markets and Nature

We tell ourselves stories, and sometimes we can see with frightening clarity the impact of those stories on our behavior.

A recent essay in 3 Quarks Daily by Nick Werle (Competing to Live: On Planet Earth and Being in Nature) takes a careful but wide ranging look at the many stories we tell ourselves about Nature.  He looks at David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series and the focus on the delicate balance in nature…and its requirements.  He looks at Darwin’s story in The Origin and sees similar threads regarding competition and the urge to survive. They both have a keen interest in understanding the mechanism of competition.

“In the rain forest, which we have seen has both high productivity and unceasing conflict, ‘competition for resources ensures that no one species dominates the jungle.’”

David Attenborough, Planet Earth

All of Nature is Regulated and Interconnected…and we are part of Nature

At the end he raises the obvious question of how we humans, the closest relative to the marauding gangs of chimpanzees that are depicted wrecking havoc in the jungle, care or alternately don’t seem to care about our place in the balance of nature.  Deregulationism has at its core a willful faith that the market will balance out all transgressions, that it is a marvelous–nay, Magic–self-regulating machine that is well within the bounds of Nature itself. It is a faith that ignores the obvious issue of interconnectedness.  Witness the global concern over Japan’s under-regulated, under-managed, growth focused nuclear program in the last month.  Earthquakes and tsunamis are natural disasters; nuclear meltdowns as a result of deregulation are not, and no market forces  can adjust the damage done.

As we have seen with increasing regularity, our wave of deregulation–from bubble to bust, from drilling and chemicals to “clean-ups,” implosions,  and overpopulation, we are not living in balance with the planet we call home.

We have managed to upset the balance of so many systems that it seems to me we are now living well outside of nature.  Plastic may well be the iconic metaphor for all we have become. The story we tell ourselves, and what we are actually doing, are not concordant, even as they could be.  Attenborough makes an argument that yes, we are part of Nature, and our particular playing field is uniquely human, but is nonetheless part of the large balance we would do well to have an interest in. The point Attendborough makes is more subtle than those put forth by deregulationists:

It positions humanity not as an alien force superimposed on an independently existing natural world but as a part of the same precariously balance system. The argument is so affective because it refuses to plead. Instead it suggests that we reconsider the boundaries we draw between systems we hope to keep in balance.

Instead of defining the jungle as the wild and unthinkable state of nature, this naturalist approach seeks to fuse man’s understanding of himself with the complexities of Nature in order to ensure that Planet Earth never becomes a stunning monument to irrecoverable beauty.



PCC is baggin’ my veggies: why?

PCC’s new veggie bags are buggin’ me

It’s a little thing, but it has now taken on a gigantic irritation quotient in my brain: PCC uses this funky, straight-to-the-landfill plastic netting on many of the vegetables, such as brussel sprouts above, green beans and the like.

Why this bugs me: the netting is completely non-reusable, and face it: my relationship with PCC is a values-based thing.  I don’t go there because they have the best price.  I go there because their values are supposed to be somewhat in line with my own.  And my values are like this: I re-use & recycle to the degree possible.  That means: as much as possible.

These little green mesh bags?  Not so much.  Can’t re-use, can’t recycle…in fact, they’re a total waste, not to mention that if I want a lot (and I do, I eat a LOT of vegetables), I have to buy sometimes two or three of these plastic mesh packages.

So when I asked Kevin, the veg manager at my local PCC why PCC has suddenly started using them, his answer so completely underwhelmed that I just walked away: because  “it’s easier to stock with the mesh bags, and there’s less mess to clean up.”  No.  Really.

So, I went straight away to Metropolitan Market, it has a pretty wonderful veg and fruit section, and guess what!  Their sprouts and green beans?  Free as birds, no plastic mesh wrap.  And guess what else!  None on the floor.  No mess.  So I bought some of the green beans, and if this pattern continues, I may be heading over to Met Market for all my shopping.  I do like it better in many ways.

I work hard to avoid putting more stuff in the land fill.  I prefer to partner with organizations that are sensitive to the issues as well.  As I said, it’s a small thing…but those small things tend to have outsize power over time.

 

Bag it: three minute video well worth a watch

This guy gets it.  Watch Bag It and join the rest of us as we learn to say NO to that plastic bag.

Getting the word out: We can solve the problem of the Pacific Garbage Patch

Mary Crowley is rounding up willing volunteers and their boats to tackle the problem of the presumed Texas-sized garbage patch in the pacific. She has a plan, and wild amounts of fortitude and vision to tackle this growing island of plastic and trash…and she even wants to recycle the plastic once it’s brought onshore.

We’ve all seen and participated in trash clean-ups–in parks, along roadsides, at the beach.  It has now fallen to us to figure out how to do this in the open ocean…it’s our garbage, and our problem.  Mary Crowley is a hero and a visionary and if I had a boat, I’d probably sign up to join her.  For my part, I’ll continue to pick trash up and bring it back to shore when I’m out on my board.

Spread the word about Mary Crowley’s Project Kaisei

“The big challenge for us is to get the word out that we do have the technology to figure out how to solve” this problem, she says.

Some 60 to 80 percent of the plastic in oceans is not released by ships but originates onshore before being swept out to sea via coastal waterways.

Kaisei means “Ocean Planet” which of course, we of the Blue Planet are.

Another site, Container Recycling Institute,  tracks the number o, linked to from the Kaisei site tracks how many plastic bottles are going straight into landfills.  If this doesn’t alarm you, I want some of what you’re ingesting.

One last thing, the Kaisei project set out two ships last year.  Each ship sampled waters in the Pacific within 3,500 miles of each other and the samples are being analyzed now, but what was immediately evident to the researchers was the growing layer of small bits of plastic on the surface of the ocean–everywhere.  Thousands of miles offshore, for as far as you could see.  Imagine.

And now imagine yourself as part of the ocean ecosystem, a whale, dolphin, tuna, starfish, coral bed, kestrel, herring…that relies on a chain of being that is now consuming tiny bits of plastic as though it were food, tiny minute bits of plastic.  Plastic working its way right up into the Great Chain of Being.

Of which we, you and I, are a part.  Just think of it.

This Sweet Old World

I’ve been humming the tune of This Sweet Old World today, floating between grief and disbelief over the BP Spill.  This isn’t a scree about that mess, I don’t know what can really be said.  BP should promise flat out that it will do anything and everything possible to make this right, simply, clearly, no hedging.

This sweet old world….

S’anyway…

Yesterday I had a minor medical treatment that involved a small incision and some stitches.  No big. But I was somewhat dumbfounded when over the course of 25 minutes I saw the assistant put on, remove and toss in the garbage no less than six pairs of latex gloves.

No, really.  Six pairs.  Right in the plastic bag that held the growing mound of waste that would be collected up and thrown somewhere.  The ocean probably.

I mentioned my surprise to the assistant and he, without the slightest thought, said, “well, we have to use a new set of gloves each time we open a canister because the germs can spread so easily.”

Ok.  Picture this: my little treatment happening at that moment, hundreds and hundreds of times yesterday all around the world…cuz yeah, it wasn’t very exotic.  And then imagine more complex treatments, and full out surgeries. Imagine the amount of plastic bags full of latex and plastic wrappers emanating from those hospitals all around the world.

six pairs of latex gloves in 25 minutes

So I’ve been thinking about this. Rolling it around in my head, along with the beached whales this summer and their stomachs full of plastic, and the ease of plastic, and the mindlessness of plastic and then a talk by Bill McKibben gave on NPR the other day and his new book, Eaarth,  which argues for the end of growth.

How did I get there?  Because it is the magic thinking of an expanding universe of humanity that is at the root of most of our problems today…as McKibben says, we are now “too big to succeed.”

Consider: the growing universe of germs is due to an ever increasing population that is ever increasing its number of cure-all antibiotics that the invisible microbial world mutates to conquer again and again and again.

Consider: the more people we have, the more resources we use, in an obviously limited world.

Consider: the dwindling resources requires us to take ever more extreme actions to supply the ever increasing population of humans demanding ever more of everything, while believing there is no cause-and-effect–magic!.

There is a report today about the impact slowing down– reducing driving speeds– would have in a systemic way...proof positive that a small thing can make a big difference.  We could do this, but as a nation, the idea of slowing down is insulting, not to mention unenforced, and basically any questioning of our power to do what we want, when we want, and at the speed we want, is generally viewed as unpatriotic.  Our magic thinking has gone round the bend.

There are things we could do.  You and I both know there are things we could do differently, for the sake of this sweet old world.

Midway Atoll: Art, Grief and Transformation

Take a look at some photos from the front–the front being that stretch of sea that holds the world’s biggest floating garbage patch.  Will it someday come to be known as an “oceanfill” like landfill?

Chris Jordan’s work is entitled “Art, Grief and Transformation.”  As he says, the grief of seeing wildlife killed by having ingested plastic it thinks is food is nearly too much to contemplate.

The amount of plastic we are producing, discarding, and sending into the food chain is unfathomable.  Our disconnect from the reality of overpopulation and over-consumption is stunning.  How did we evolve to such a level of magic thinking?

World Water Day: two great vids, and maybe just for today, don’t be afraid of your tap.

First video clearly, and with a good sense of humor, highlights how the bottled water industry (Pepsi, Coke, Fiji, etc) have used stark fear to manufacture the demand for bottled water. I’ve switched to drinking from the tap over the last year; we use a regular old filter. No big.

This video shows the horrendous life-cycle of bottled water, and how much it really really costs. And did you know how many cargo ship loads of water bottles end up as mountains of plastic garbage in India. Think about that next time you toss a plastic bottle in the “recycle” bin. More here, it’s a good–and clever–video.

Second video from Surfrider association. I hope every school in the world streams this in for their kids to watch, if only so they can know what they’re inheriting from us.

The Cycle of Insanity: The Real Story of Water from Surfrider Foundation on Vimeo.

End-of-year round up: yeehah!

Some updates on two themes for the year, Living Green and Running.  I’ll save Running for another day before 2010 descends.

Living Green

One big change I’ve really enjoyed is switching to home-made toothpaste.  “Enjoyed” is an overstatement, in fact it was a pretty big adjustment. What most of us are used to wrt to toothpaste is pretty sweet gel stuff, easy to use and tasty like good chewing gum.  Home-made toothpaste isn’t like that so it was an adjustment.

What led to making my own:

  • Estimating the annual landfill caused by non-recyclable tubes emanating from our house, our neighborhood, our city (literally millions of tubes)
  • Investigating toothpaste recipes and history and realizing there were real health benefits to a simple recipe of baking soda, mint mouthwash, glycerin and flavoring
  • Trying it out and learning it takes about 5 minutes to make a jar of it that will last a month.  5 minutes = 1 month.

Some downsides:

  • My partner didn’t like the taste and refused to use it, thus my goal of reducing our personal landfill quotient was cut in half for a while.
  • It doesn’t leave your mouth “zingingly” clean-feeling, so I continue to rinse with mouthwash, but that container IS recyclable  and it added nothing new to my existing habits.
  • You have to stir it up sometimes, but that was good enough for Bob Marley so it’s good enough for me.

An update to the first bullet/”downsides”: I had my first dental check-up about 6 months after I started using homemade toothpaste and was given the most glowing report I’ve ever had from a dentist.  In fact the technician said, in that geeky dental technician way: “I have total gingi-envy of your teeth.”  Homemade toothpaste cuts bacteria way better than traditional toothpastes on the market, it turns out.  My partner started using the homemade version about a month after that report.

Another change we’ve put in place regards plastic bags. Even though we’re fortunate in Seattle to have a plastic bag recycling program, still, once you become aware of how many plastic bags you’re putting into the system, just picking up more and more becomes slightly irritating and disturbing. When you factor in the issue of plastic bags making their way into the oceans and waterways of the world, well, my head sort of explodes, ok?

We began tracking the amount of bags we have in a week: bags from produce, packaging bags for everything from rice to frozen berries, bags from the grocery store.  We made a decision to simply clean and dry all we could and reuse them at the store.  This was a clumsy new process and took time before the magic started to happen: after a while, we simply weren’t bringing IN as many bags.  AND! we now had fridge storage plastic and stopped needing to use so much plastic wrap.  All in all, after about a month, it was a no-brainer.

Upsides:

  • Once we figured out a path to get clean, dry bags into our shopping bags for weekend market/grocery shopping, the system worked.
  • Fridge storage is a lot easier–this was unexpected.  There’s always an easy to use bag in the drawer waiting for you.
  • We’ve reduced our recycling load, again–not by a ton, but by some measure for sure.
  • A bag is a bag is a bag–at first I was self-conscious about using bags with marketing on them, but now I don’t care.  A bag is a bag, it’s a container, that’s all.  Relief.

Downsides:

  • Making a process, and building a habit around the process takes about 3 months
  • When reusing the packaging bags, like from frozen berries, the store has problems with the existing bar code on the bag; we just turn then inside out now so the bar code doesn’t trigger.
  • Sometimes we have a few too many bags in the clean/dry process and it gets a wee bit unwieldy.  Just sometimes.

Those are the two GREEN initiatives that have taken root in our home.  Change is slow.  We’ve done lots of other things over the last few years but I wanted to highlight these two because they indicate a different level of commitment to change than other things we’ve done (drying our clothes on lines when possible, driving less, composting more).  Happy New Year! Let’s make it a good one!

Comment re Earth 3.0

I’ve been getting heavy traffic on my article from a while ago entitled “Plastic Disturbia.”  One of the commenters, kevinkrejci pointed me to a special edition of Scientific American called Earth 3.0.  It’s a good read and discusses the earth and our relationship to it in a new light: product.  We upgraded to Industrial Revolution in 2.0, and now are ready for a big upgrade, doncha think?

Read it here: Earth 3.0.  Thanks Kevinkrejci!

Emails from the Western Front: the Pacific Garbage Patch

Over at the HuffPpost, Laurie David is chronicling Charles Moore’s exploration of the path from the California Coast to the northern waters of the Hawaiian Islands. The goal? Plastics. He’s aboard the Algalita, a research vessel dedicated to studying the impact of plastics on the environment of the world’s oceans.

He will be sending regular emails describing their findings, and Laurie David will post them on the HuffPost. I look forward to following the adventure, and hope you’ll help spread the news about this research that affects us all.

Update on Plastics….the only permanent thing in the world

Msjean noted in a comment yesterday that the UN is taking up the cause of plastic bags, so I checked it out and indeed: the topic is being discussed.

In this article, the UN Environmental Programme put forth some uncomfortable information:

Although recycling bags is on the rise in the United States, an estimated 90 billion thin bags a year, most used to handle produce and groceries, go unrecycled. They were the second most common form of litter after cigarette butts at the 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, a marine environmental group.

“Plastic, the most prevalent component of marine debris, poses hazards because it persists so long in the ocean, degrading into tinier and tinier bits that can be consumed by the smallest marine life at the base of the food web.”

Plastic is Forever.  Lately I’ve been thinking about things like cassette tapes, video tapes, walkman devices, pens, sunglasses, drinking cups, those little wrist things used for ID in hospitals–all of these things made out of so much plastic and that are doomed to be discarded because they are no longer useful, outdated, unpopular, temporary, whatever.  The funny thing: we think of Plastic as temporary, but it is in fact the most permanent thing in the world.  That’s not an exaggeration.

Look around yourself right now, how much plastic can you see?  Now ask yourself: where will that end up?

Anyway, thanks msjean for pointing me to this news.  Much appreciated!

Plastic Disturbia

The other day I was paddle boarding around the bay in West Seattle. At this time of year, we have extreme low and high tides, and the slack tide in between tends to be the collection point for a lot of garbage in the water. Even as the day was lovely, the paddling exquisite, I kept coming across a disturbing pattern: big globs of muck that were built out a tangled mess of fishing line, 6-pack ring, seaweed, plastic bags, algae, bungee cords, dead fish, feathers, plastic bottles, unidentified gunk and plastic food containers. The common ingredient: plastic. And there were a lot of these little floating islands.

plastic in our oceans

These congealed half-bio-half-plastic masses are very quickly becoming ubiquitous in our oceans. If the only damage were that of the scenery, I could almost but not quite shrug it off.

The damage is much, much worse. In fact, you could say that what I was seeing off Lincoln Park was just the barest tip of an iceberg.

Sierra Magazine has an article this month entitled “Message in a Bottle” and it’s worth a few minutes to read. Gird yourself, you may not be prepared for the story:

  • There is an area off the coast of Japan known as The Garbage Patch, three times the size of Texas and a seeming doldrums where the world’s plastics collect and degrade.
  • Don’t kid yourself: plastic doesn’t ever entirely degrade like things in the organic world. Plastic simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Those pieces at some point become indistinguishable from krill and other food sources in the ocean
  • This plastic broth is making its way into the food chain; the bellies of baby fish are gorged with the stuff and yet they die of starvation. Adult birds and fish are ingesting it. It’s real, it’s happening.
  • One of the main culprits is a thing called plastic nurdles--manufactured plastic molded into small nuggets for easy shipment to manufacturing plants all around the world to make things like that handy blue plastic water bottle, that shovel and bucket your kids play with at the beach, the parts in your car, the caps on your soda, the packing in that new TV (not to mention the TV itself), the plastic wrapper on the grapes you brought to the picnic, the cap on your latte-to-go, your flip-flops, and that bobble-head toy you got at the ballpark. The massive ships carrying these nurdles sometimes lose their cargo, sometimes they accidentally dump large quantities of the stuff, sometimes it just gets loose.

The thing I can’t get out of my head, the thing that haunts me is how much plastic there is. We really don’t even think about plastic as plastic anymore, we think of it as normal. Diamonds may not be forever, after all they are organic structures, but plastic really IS forever. Where will all of this stuff go, this stuff that really IS forever?

In my own little life, we have upped our efforts to decrease the amount of plastic in our lives, but it’s an uphill battle. We reuse our plastic bags and buy in bulk as much as possible, we forego the plastic cap on the latte, we avoid the over-architected containers.

And we have to content ourselves with that. It’s not enough, but it’s something we can do.

The clean-up on this mess will be monstrous; if we started today, we could have 100% employment for decades. The one upside to this is it’s undeniable: the massive three-times-the-size-of-Texas floating islands of garbage are real. You could go there today and be blown away by the iceberg-depth and island-breadth of the mess.

plastic ocean 2

plastic: the dawning realization

So, what I’ve figured out over the past two weeks: not using my car is like a walk in the park compared to managing plastic. You can clean and save all the bags and re-use them week after week at the grocery store until you are blue in the face and it will still barely make a ripple in the vast ocean of plastic that comes into the home simply in packaging.

recyclable plastic containers

And those are the recyclable kinds of plastic. Everything, it seems, is wrapped in some kind of plastic–most of it non-recyclable. So, we’re already a little bummed. The bag of plastic recycling under the sink is growing more slowly than it used to, but it’s far from empty. Where are we going to put all this plastic the entire world is now using to package everything–just packaging, mind you! This is just the stuff you take the desired item out of and toss–landfill, landfill!

Today, with little prodding from me, my partner remembered to use the recycled plastic bags I’d brought and we managed to get out of the store with No New Bags in tow. But hey, if you’ve set your sites on living a wee bit greener, ditching your car and riding your bike is a thousand times easier. Why? Because you have more choice in the matter.

Okay, a little bummed but undaunted, I continue in my quest.

plastic bags

And I wanted to share a little story. A friend of mine, when she heard about my new project to reduce plastic bags and such from my life, read the previous blog and told me of an amazing plastic bag feat: the trash can liner in her home office is the same plastic bag she’s used for 12 years. 12 Years! That is so awesome and such an indication of how plastic lives on and on and on and on….

So, the experiment continues… I think the next step is to begin learning about what other people are doing about Plastic. More soon.

Plastic: the beginning.

My grandmother had what seemed from to me, a funny habit with plastic bags.  But first, let’s back up.

ct1-31_waxpaper.jpg

When I was a little kid, we had wax paper.  We had wax paper for sandwiches and wax paper for covering bowls in the fridge, wax paper for all the uses where plastic is used now.  Plastic obviously took the whole storage and freshness question to new heights, it was a boon, a valuable invention.

So back to my grandmother.  When plastic bags started replacing wax paper, she saved and re-used the plastic bags–which were, as I mentioned, seen as valuable and not yet ubiquitous–for all kinds of things.  She thought they were a miracle invention–precious almost.

plastic bags

As my grandmother aged, and I alongside her, I noticed a growing abundance of plastic bags in her house.  In drawers, jammed in with the pots and pans, stored in grocery bags.  She still felt they were precious and besides, they were still good–and she was from a generation that used things until they were worn out.  Nowadays we only plan on using things until the marketing arm of various companies tell us to dump the old thing for the new thing.

My grandmother hadn’t made the change in her mind–she never made it, in fact.  She never quite got over the value of plastic bags, never saw them as disposable, because they were still good.  In fact, back in the 70’s, I recall various contraptions people designed to help re-use plastic bags.  They were in vogue for about a new york minute since people largely can’t be bothered with so much effort to re-use the thing we can throw away and get so many more of in the same new york minute.

plastic bag dryer

So when she became too old to be in her home and had to move to a care center, at the ripe old age of 94 (she lived to 101), we had to clean out her house to put it on the market.  As you can probably guess, there were stashes of plastic bags everywhere–and I mean everywhere.  She continued to re-use them but who can possibly re-use as many as are coming in?  It was a phenomenal sight–bags of plastic bags in the cupboards, in the drawers, in the hall closet, everywhere.

Plastic bad landfill

And I think back now to this now with a larger frame in mind.  I think of my grandmother’s unwitting demonstration of how many plastic bags one can collect, use, and dispose of one’s lifetime. She was a living experiment–she actually kept most of the plastic bags that came into her possession and it was an unbelievable sight. The amount of plastic bags we collect is, honestly, phenomenal and unthinkable.

Changing my own plastic bag habitz

I’ve started on my new habit changing project and we’re doing pretty well with it, as a household.  Plastic bags we use and can re-use go right back in the canvas bags for use at the store in the coming week.

Plastic bags that are manufactured to hold things with zip lock tops–like raisins, nuts, what have you–are cleaned and used for sandwiches and fridge storage.  Sure, they have branding all over them, but hey.  You get used to it.

I’m already seeing a big reduction in the plastic recycling bag we keep under the sink.  It used to be brimming most of the time with bags, but it’s pretty lame and empty right now–a good sign.  So, how will I measure success?  Haven’t figured it out yet, but so far, the switch to being conscious about plastic is going well.

Except for the depressing realization that plastic is everywhere all the time, and the gnawing question about where all that plastic goes…but I’ll leave that for another day.