Yesterday my kiddo and I took a field trip with some friends to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum to see their Plastics Unwrapped exhibit. If you do any reading and thinking about our plastics use, I don’t think you’ll be too surprised by a lot of the facts and stats, but the exhibit is quite visually compelling in its conveyance of the message that we are on one heck of a disposal-loving path that spells disaster for our non-human and human companions on this little blue planet.
Its pretty incredible to ponder the fact that 50 years ago, plastics were barely a part of our cultural norm. Now they are so integrated into our daily lives that- as the exhibit points out very cleverly by asking you to think about how many plastic items you have touched since you got up this morning- we cannot imagine life without them. And there are amazing, wonderful things that plastic has enabled. Can we even imagine the practice of modern medicine without plastic? Or our cars, which have about 250 lbs of plastic in them apiece? Or yoga without lycra (ok, maybe some of us including yours truly might be better off without the invention of skin-tight fabrics, but anyway…)?
But there are lots of things we manufacture out of plastic that we could do with a lot less of, particularly disposable materials like bags and packaging that is often used once and thrown away. Statistics like the number of plastic water bottles we collectively use every second – 1500! – and the number of plastic bags we use per second – 12,000! – are hard to comprehend, though the exhibit facilitates the mental acrobatics by actually showing you the 1500 water bottles, etc, that are used. Every second. Holy cow.
The museum’s exhibit website is excellent- tons of links to resources where you can delve deeper into these facts and figures, where I learned additional tidbits of interest, like how many barrels of oil are used to fuel our plastic bag use: 12 billion barrels of oil. Think about that for a moment. While politicians get a ton of mileage (pun intended) by getting anxious on your behalf about you paying a few cents more at the pump, we are using about twice the total annual US consumption of oil to make plastic bags. Wow.
Fortunately for us, the exhibit wasn’t a total bummer. They also give a lot of credit and attention to companies in outdoor clothing, auto manufacturing, and packaging, that are striving really hard to reduce our carbon, water and materials footprints by turning to less petroleum-intensive alternatives, paving the way for research into reducing materials use by recycling and upcycling existing materials and drawing on new biomaterials like corn plastics and soy-based stuffings. One of the coolest things I learned about was mushroom packaging, where fungal threads are grown on a platform into any shape that is needed to provide a totally compostable packaging material! Pretty incredible stuff.
However, the takeaway for my friends and I, and something we kept coming back to as we walked around the exhibit, is that what we really need to talk about more than anything is the first two of the three R’s: reducing and reusing. These are really the tougher of the three R’s to talk about, because they are quite antithetical to our consumer-based society, where buying things is one of our favorite past-times and something of a patriotic obsession (even though most of the stuff we buy isn’t made in our own country anyway). The new bio-materials are in some ways vast improvements on their petroleum based conventional versions, particularly in helping reduce the amount of waste that ends up sitting in a landfill or ending up in the Pacific Gyre, and they tend to emit fewer toxins than their conventional alternatives as they degrade. But as this article on corn plastics articulates well, bio-materials have many hurdles including energy and water-intensive growing processes and ecological impacts, GMO issues, and all kinds of disposal headaches as our waste management systems struggle to catch up and deal with issues like folks throwing corn-based plastics into recycling, or overwhelming commercial composting systems with a material that can cause chemical imbalances in the microbial composting process. In a nutshell, it is dangerous to view bio-packaging as a way to legitimize our single-serving, disposable lifestyle.
Instead, while we should embrace and support bio-packaging and seek to meet the challenges of appropriate disposal and composting of these new materials, its incredibly key for our carbon footprint and the rest of our ecological footprint that we move backwards in time, to those pre-plastic days when we all did a lot more maintenance and reuse of the materials we have. I’ll finish up this pondering by pointing you to our friends at Trash Backwards and to many of the links on the Plastics Unwrapped Website for a huge list of ideas for reducing and reusing what you’ve got, and here some things we are already doing at my house or are working on getting better at to reduce our fantastic plastic lifestyle:
- buy bulk at the store using reusable containers (our grocery store is happy to tare containers you bring in from home)
- wash and reuse plastic bags and wraps
- buy fewer, higher quality clothes, and mend and maintain them to extend their lifecycle (See Action 31)
- reusable containers such as tiffins (plastic-free!) and bento boxes for our family’s lunches at school and work
- bring our water bottles with us wherever we go, including school, work and outings, so we never have to buy bottled (a work in progress, but we usually remember…)
- give our stores positive feedback when they increase their bulk offerings, take another step away from packaging, don’t offer a bag with purchase or at least ask you first if you want one. I think its incredibly important that our stores hear from us as consumers that we care when they make these efforts.
Life is certainly fantastic; but even more so, with less plastic.
If you want to see the Burke Museum plastics exhibit, its showing through May 27. And if you arent local- good news! This is a traveling exhibit! Check out http://www.burkemuseum.org/booknow/plastics_unwrapped_itin, to see if the exhibit is coming to a space near you; this site even provides info on how to contact the museum to see if you could have it exhibited locally.