Letter to the editor: Plastic causes apprehension

I am filled with apprehension. Daily, nightly, I fiddle and turn worry beads in my mind. Rough edged, prickly, irritating. They offer no smooth comfort to my worries over ice melt.
I must try real beads. Tactile, not so much of the mind. Out of mind. Stone, I think, recalling the primal, comforting touch of stones I dig from the garden. I will make a string of smooth, sun-warmed stones. Prayer stones. Hail Mary, Full of Grace. Om Mani Padme Hum. Forgive Us, Earth Mother, for We Know What We Do. I will hang the smooth stones from my neck. Comfort; weight; pieces of Her.
What else can I do? What else can I do?
Perhaps I shall write about it; dissuade; persuade; instigate change. Start with one of the many Earth things that cause me worry.
I was born before plastic. And that is something; a place to start.
I was born before plastic. I was born before plastic. I was born before plastic. Mantra. Incantation. Meditation. I was born before plastic. I rub a smooth stone between thumb and finger with each word. I. Was. Born. Before. Plastic.
When I say this to eighth-graders I teach, truly, they look at me in disbelief. Not a disbelief of how I could be so old — but an inability to reckon that there ever was such a time. So embedded it is. Plastic. We spew it out like breath — a thing that will never go away. Each item, billions of tons by now — accumulating, infiltrating.
Even more disconcerting is the answer I get when I ask eighth-graders what they think the first plastic item is that was mass produced. The first plastic thing. And this question as they are still trying to wrap their young minds around the fact that there was a time — of no plastic. Several eighth-grade students, independent of each other, reply “water bottle,” as in bottled water. Young people today cannot conceive of a time when you could not purchase water in a bottle.
And, what was that first plastic thing available to all? The answer, from Susan Frienkel’s book, “Plastic, a Toxic Love Story,” is — the plastic comb. Plastic was invented in the late 19th century but was not used widely until after World War II. Plastics had been improved for the war effort. And the military solved the problem of how to give thousands of soldiers a comb by molding them out of plastic and mass producing them. After the war, the apparatus was already set up to keep spitting them out. And so it began.
But — let me go back to “before plastic.” I feel I must testify for the historical record that a life without plastic did exist. I remember it well. And while we can never turn back to “before plastic,” we must move forward with less plastic, with other than plastic, and one space informs the other.
So — I tell the kids, there was barely a thing in my childhood in the late 1940s and the 1950s that was made from plastic. Well, those combs. I do remember plastic combs and plastic toothbrushes. But, there were no plastic toys around except for some cheap things from Japan made of a brittle, easily breakable plastic. No one bought those because they didn’t last, in the sense of not breaking, and they were not “Made in America” at a time when most things we consumed were.
I recall having a metal doll house with wooden furniture and people. My dolls had cloth bodies, rubber arms and legs, and a molded head of a composite material painted nicely with features. Glass eyes set in the doll’s head rolled with movement. Other memories: leather cowboy boots and metal cap guns; metal toy trucks; wooden Lincoln logs and metal erector sets; glass toy dishes; glass marbles; games with cardboard boards and wood pieces. We used crayons and colored pencils for art. There were no Crayola plastic markers.
All of my toys were made from wood, metal, paper and glass. Of the earth.
Nor was there anything else in my childhood house made from plastic. Zip. Nada. Well, except, plastic flowers. I remember my mother had a vase or two of plastic flowers. Insidious presage. And the telephone was plastic. A heavy chunk of durable black with a metal dial, and most homes had only one.
Our food was packaged in glass or cans; meat and fish in butcher’s wrap; milk in glass bottles. Soda, milk, and beer bottles were returned, sterilized and reused. Paper boxes encased squares of frozen vegetables. We spilled ice cubes from metal trays, and the refrigerator was metal inside and out. The TV, which had just been invented, was made of metal and glass. Groceries got packed in paper bags; plastic bags had not yet been invented.
In the early sixties, as a teenager, I worked in a department store. Items were in bins built into nicely polished wooden tables. Almost nothing in the store was individually packaged.
So I could go on. The environment was not sullied with vinyl house siding, plastic lawn chairs, or plastic fencing. And, generally, we had less things compared to this time in which we spew so much plastic junk into the consumersphere.
I have railed against plastic for at least the past decade. And I concede there are some vital uses for it. But, as is usual, we have not been measured in our use of a good thing.
My kids have tolerated my complaining, nagging — and most of them demonstrate some conscious behavior around the issue. My extended family sees me as radical. But, plastic pollution has recently been labeled the most serious threat to the environment after global warming. It is a pervasive threat to ecosystems. Plastic garbage entangles, strangles and poisons. It releases toxins. We have bales of it, mountains of it, which have been “recycled” with no place to go. One statistic states that only 9 percent of plastic gets recycled, and we are not able to re-use all of that. And, to the horror of the scientific community, they have recently determined that the debris in the state-sized islands of plastic floating in the ocean is breaking down to micro particles, which might be absorbed at a cellular level. We will be eating plastic as we eat fish. It will get into us. We will become plastic.
The problem of plastic pollution has been coming to the foreground lately. Significantly, National Geographic devoted a recent issue to it — with charts, convincing data, and graphic photos of animals entangled — or their bellies full of plastic debris. We must change our ways, and Nat Geo has ceased shipping their magazines in a plastic wrap. At least they have convinced themselves to change!
Banning single-use plastic bags has been the poster issue for keeping plastic out of the environment. Bans of plastic bags are happening and that is a good thing. But, we must realize that everything we purchase in a plastic bubble, plastic bottle, or wrap — is “single-use” plastic! Have you tried to shop with the intent of not buying anything in plastic? I have, and I found that a purist, zero impact approach could lead to starvation. Even our earth conscious food co-ops are not totally rid of plastic packaging.
Each year, I observe in horror as more disposable plastic items hit the market, as packaging becomes more plastic, as consumers keep buying it all.
And, significantly, I am of the last generation that was “born before plastic.” I give thought to what my mother and my grandmother were “born before.” Before cars, before television. Perhaps there was no insidious material which they were “born before.” Just individual things, inventions. But plastic is of many things and in many things. It has spread out and spread into the world like a virus. Nothing so impactful has come our way since fossil fuel from which it is derived. Oil — birthing indestructible, perpetual plastic. And it goes on, and on. So I worry. I worry.
Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme hum.
Carol Talmage

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