They say ignorance is bliss. In regard to the horror that is plastic, I would not say I used to be totally unaware, but I most certainly was ignorant when it came to my own use of this deadly material. To say that last Thursday’s class with Dr. Gimzewski was impactful would be an understatement. I have had my perspective on plastics forever changed, my blindfold permanently removed, and now I am not quite sure what to do with myself…
The Perspective Change: Plastic Spidey Sense
Ever since the first Happy Feet came out, and I saw Robin Williams’ penguin character nearly die as a result of six-pack plastic rings, I have always cut up these pointless pieces of plastic. It felt imperative for me to do this, and it is a habit that has stuck with me.
Figure 1: What Happens to Your Soda Rings from: “Happy Feet and Human Ecology: A Century of Environmentalism.” Ecocinema, Media, and the Environment, http://ecofilmmediaenvironment.blogspot.com/2011/12/happy-feet-and-human-ecology-century-of.html. Accessed 30 April 2019.
Yet, despite this awareness, I left Thursday’s class feeling devastated. As I walked out of Public Affairs and threw my plastic Diet Coke bottle into the recycling bin, I felt like a horrible human (who even knows if that Diet Coke will ever find its way to a recycling plant)! How can I be so reliant on something that is so inherently evil? Throughout the rest of the week and weekend, I was overwhelmed at every turn. PLASTIC, PLASTIC, PLASTIC - there was no shortage of it. I saw it everywhere. When I went to buy a poke bowl, I had no choice but to accept the single-use plastic bowl it came in, but I did turn down plastic utensils and a plastic bag. When I went grocery shopping, I bought canned soda instead of a plastic liter. I stopped buying bottled water and have a Brita waiting for me in the mail (yes… this too is plastic, but it isn’t single-use - I have to pick my battles).
My Plastic Inventory
As previously mentioned, I am trying to make changes on how I interact with plastic in my life. But, after following Dr. Gimzewski’s suggestion of photographing all the plastic things I use, I hit my (plastic) “breaking point.” I literally could not photograph everything plastic I interact with because it is most everything in my life - my phone, my laptop, my retainer, my credit/debit card, my glasses, my pens, my notebooks, my most-used plates and bowls… this list just keeps going. To try to make this an assignment that was a bit more reasonable to tackle, I photographed plastic items I consistently interact with that do not have an extended lifetime (versus a computer, plastic chair, etc.). But, even with this narrowing to my “everyday plastics,” there were still too many to include in this post. Figure 2 is a collage of nine main ones (there were dozens more).
Figure 2: Plastic Consumption Photos from: Malott, Jillien. “Plastic Addiction with No Way Out.” 2019.
Nuisance or Nonsense: Plastic with No Purpose
When I write that everything I use has plastic in it, I am not being hyperbolic. Everything I touched could have been photographed and included above. The most shocking plastic items were those that seem entirely pointless like the plastic tabs used to close plastic bread bags from Trader Joe’s and other stores (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Plastic Consumption Photos from: Malott, Jillien. “Useless and Environmentally Painful - Plastics with No Purpose.” 2019.
We are living in a time when vacation travel to space is becoming a reality (O’Hare), yet we are somehow still using these small pieces of plastic to keep our food “fresh”! And, what is even more upsetting about these little contraptions is that I never use them. I take them off the bags of bread/food, and then they become the latest counter decoration in my apartment (and, if they are lucky, they become my latest fidget toy). Eventually they make their way into the plastic trash can with its plastic bag. They live an entirely purpose-free life (or, rather, their purpose seems to be to destroy our planet).
To See or Not to See - That is the Question
One of the most upsetting discoveries of my plastic inventory was my single-use contact lenses. Although these lenses are the most hygienic for eye care, they are plastic and have serious impacts on the environment. More than 20% of single-use contact users report that they flush/wash their contacts down the drain when they are done using them (Greenwood). What they don’t realize is that these do not decompose, but, rather, break apart into millions of pieces, contributing to microplastic pollution in the ocean (Greenwood). Approximately 13.2 to 14.7 billion disposable contact lenses are estimated to be used by Americans annually (Cornelius). These billions of lenses contribute to trillions of microplastics that eventually make their way into the food chain. Many times I have left out an old pair of contacts and seen first hand how brittle they become when all moisture is taken out of them - they shatter into hundreds of pieces with the slightest touch. But, the fact that these contacts create microplastics is not even the worst part of the situation. Contacts are designed to absorb and retain moisture, which means these microplastics are laden with toxins that are inevitably being ingested by us (Figure 4)!
Figure 4: Microplastic Life Cycle from: Bowen, Devon. “World Oceans Day.” Two Oceans Aquarium, https://www.aquarium.co.za/blog/entry/world-ocean-day-the-problems-with-plastic-and-the-people-who-try-to-solve-t. Accessed 30 April 2019.
A Solution to Plastic? A Wealthy Person’s Destiny
Some companies are becoming trailblazers for their “eco-friendly,” plastic-free packaging. One of the most well known is Lush (Schaverien). I own several of Lush’s products, including “naked” shampoo bars, conditioner bars, and body lotion pots that have absolutely no packaging. Lush is seeking to show the world how plastic isn’t necessary (“Naked!”). Yet, despite there being less material, these products are more expensive than their packaged counterparts. And, this highlights one of the most horrible parts of our addiction to plastic - curing yourself of this affliction requires wealth. Non-plastic alternatives are astronomically expensive. When I realized how many things I have that are plastic, I tried to figure out why I had purchased these things. The answer? I could afford them unlike the metal and glass alternatives. Being a college student is rather ironic - you learn about how you want to change the world and then you realize you are too poor to actually do it. Being environmentally conscious requires a significant amount of disposable income (Convery).
Living in a Plastic World
The moment I realized we were discussing plastics last week, my mind immediately thought of the following photos:
Figures 5 (top left), 6 (top right), and 7 (bottom): Mermaids Hate Plastic from: Wong, Von. “10,000 Plastic Bottles, One Mermaid, and a Single Wish.” Von Wong Blog, https://blog.vonwong.com/mermaidplastic/. Accessed 30 April 2019.
This photo series is done by artist Von Wong in an attempt to highlight the plastic pollution in the oceans. The images are almost always associated with “#MermaidsHatePlastic.” These two video links provide a very interesting perspective on the project and how it came into fruition:
I think Wong’s artwork is truly impactful, and it shows how important art is in spreading awareness and encouraging public action. It clearly had an impact on me since I remembered it the moment the word “plastic” was uttered in our class. Yet, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I am still at a bit of a loss - how can I stop using plastic when it makes up my entire life and the alternatives are out of my income bracket? If everything we think is being recycled is actually just going to a landfill or our oceans, how can my actions make any impact on this human-wide issue (Flam)? Our plastic pollution wasn’t started by one individual nor will it resolved by just one person’s actions. Despite this, I am deciding here and now to dedicate myself to maintaining a “small but mighty” mentality, and I will continue to choose Diet Coke cans over plastic bottles.
Convery, Stephanie. “What Happens When You Give Up Plastic, and is It a Lifestyle for the Lucky Few?” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/02/the-politics-of-quitting-plastic-is-it-only-a-lifestyle-option-for-the-lucky-few. Accessed 29 April 2019.
Cornelius, Keridwin. “Contact Lenses are a Surprising Source of Pollution.” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/contact-lenses-are-a-surprising-source-of-pollution/. Accessed 30 April 2019.
Flam, Faye. “The Recycling Game is Rigged Against You.” Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-06-27/plastic-recycling-is-a-problem-consumers-can-t-solve. Accessed 30 April 2019.
Greenwood, Veronique. “Before You Flush Your Contact Lenses, You May Want to Know This.” The New York Times,
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/19/science/contact-lenses-pollution.html. Accessed 30 April 2019.
“Naked!” Lush, https://www.lushusa.com/our-values-naked.html. Accessed 29 April 2019.
O’hare, Maureen. “Look Inside the First Luxury Space Hotel.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/aurora-station-luxury-space-hotel/index.html. Accessed 30 April 2019.
Schaverien, Anna. “Lush Creates Packaging-Free Shops: Will Other Retailers Follow Suit?” Forbes,https://www.forbes.com/sites/annaschaverien/2019/03/12/lush-creates-packaging-free-shops-but-will-other-retailers-follow-suit/#33af298a246d