In July, coinciding with the worldwide campaign against plastics, Trinity had an ugly sight in the narthex: the Bag-Monster. The average American goes through 250 pounds of plastics every year. In the US, we use 100 billion plastic bags a year, and we barely use them for 12 minutes. This begs the question on the title: What’s so bad about plastics?
Without going into a treatise, let’s start from the basics, with an invitation to click on the hyperlinks if you want more information. Plastics have been mass-produced since the 1950s. Global production grew from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 359 million tons in 2018, causing a global environmental catastrophe. In short, plastics are destroying our planet. Watch this 2-minutes video from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) .
From the early stages of production, plastic starts damaging the earth. Its main components are petrochemicals, and fossil fuels are used to extract, transport, refine and even try to dispose of plastics. But plastics are not easily disposable. It takes at least 500 years to biodegrade most plastics, and the lifespan of a styrofoam cup is estimated at 1,000,000 years. We are not even going to address the fact that most petrochemical refineries in the US are located in, or close to BIPOC neighborhoods (Blacks, Indigenous and People of Color), and cause severe impact on their health (think the “cancer alleys” in Newark, NJ and Louisiana).
Plastics break down into tiny little pieces known as “microplastics” --smaller than a micron--, that are transported by rainwater into our streams, rivers and oceans, and even fly in the air, damaging animals of all kinds, particularly fish and aquatic life. They’ve been found in Arctic and Antarctic fresh snow and in the deepest parts of the ocean. This one-hour PBS documentary provides more detail. Researchers have found microplastics in our lungs, in the bloodstream, and even in the bloodstream of unborn babies. According to this article on The Week, “studies have found that plastics contain chemicals that can act as ‘endocrine disruptors,’ meaning that they can affect and even mimic hormones; in theory, this means microplastics in the body may cause cancer, reproductive disorders, chronic inflammation, autoimmune diseases, obesity, and neurological impairment in developing fetuses and children.” Research on this is in its infancy, yet quickly denied (without evidence) by the plastic and fossil fuels industries. We ingest 5 mg of plastics a week --the equivalent of one credit card! According to the World Economic Forum, at the current rate of use and recycling, by 2050, pound for pound, we’ll have more plastics than fish alive in all our oceans.
How about recycling? Well, it’s not that simple. The article in The Week reveals “the dirty secret of the plastics industry”: it has transferred the responsibility for recycling to the consumers, and made the recycling process complicated, confusing and ineffective. The small triangle with the recycling symbol and a number from 1 to 7 in it, has led us to believe that every number can be recycled. Not true. In Henderson County we can only recycle #1, 2, 4, and 5 (rinsed and dry; lids and labels are O.K.). But, at the end only 33% of these are actually recycled at the recycling centers (mostly bottles). This means that #3, 6 and 7 cannot be recycled. Plus, all the other plastics without the recycling symbol and numbers, and all items smaller than 3 inches that cannot be processed by the recycling equipment. Visit this interactive NPR website to see visually how much cannot be recycled. According to The Week, in 2021 only 6% of plastics in the US were recycled, down from 9% in 2014. In addition, recycled plastic cannot be recycled more than two times. And what’s worse, some recyclers even burn plastics as fuel to generate electricity, thus emitting more noxious gasses into the environment. As a result of this, BeyondPlastics.org strongly argues that “Plastics Recycling Is a Big, Fat Lie.”
Bringing the problem to our own backyard in Western North Carolina: Over the past couple of years Mountain True has analyzed our Western NC rivers and streams, collecting water samples regularly and analyzing the local aquatic life in our “clean crystalline” waters we are proud of. They found that all contain alarming levels of plastics. Check this article and videos released in April. These studies have led Mountain True to create extensive programs to get rid of plastics in our environment and stop plastic pollution at its source. Read about making Plastic-free Western NC. Even Hendersonville is working on going plastic-free! Learn about it here and support the businesses that have already committed to it.
The problem is so large and urgent that in March 2022, 175 nations agreed to work on a global agreement and have it ready by 2024.
By now you must be raising the question: what can we do? In simple terms: educate ourselves on the severity of the problem, cut down consumption of single-use plastic, keep what we use out of the environment, and advocate for going plastic-free. At a personal level, at a community level (church, town, region, etc), and at a policy level.
So, at a personal level, we’ll need to change simple habits, one at a time. That’s a challenge, but it can be done. Here are concrete, simple actions that, when we act as a community, can make a difference. (Tip: print this list, post it on your refrigerator, give yourself a star every time that you do one of these actions, focus on 2-3 points every month, and keep adding 2-3 different ones the following month):
Keep a reusable bag in the car at all times. Use it and return it to the car right away.
Choose Paper: if you are asked “paper or plastic” at a check out, say “paper, please.” Recycle the paper bag. (Better yet, beat them to the punch: even before they ask. tell them “paper, please”)
Just say “no”: If the cashier asks you if “you need a bag?” Say, “no, thanks ... and thanks for asking.”
Beat them to the punch: If you only have a few items that you can carry in your hand, tell the cashier: “No bagging, please.” (If they already put them in the bag...have them take them out and explain why.)
Reject straws when offered at a restaurant: if the waiter leaves it at the table, even if unused, they still have to toss it, and it’ll end up in the ocean.
Skip plastic utensils when ordering “take out”, and encourage restaurants not to give them out automatically.
Support the Hendo businesses that are working on going plastic free. See list here.
Endorse the Mountain True campaigns to go Plastic-Free in Western NC
Avoid plastic wraps to keep leftovers. Use beeswax wrapping or glass reusable containers instead.
Shop for sustainable and environmentally friendly products. Check out the Grove Collaborative.
Tell retailers why you want less plastic in what they sell to you.
Build these simple habits gradually, 2-3 in a month, then add others, and share new ideas with us in the comments. Join the millions of people across the globe who have gone plastic free in July.
Keep updated and work on building a future beyond plastics: by regularly visiting the BeyondPlastics.org website to sharply reduce the use of plastics, while, at the same time, we continue recycling as much as possible.
Finally, watch out for future articles and eco-tips in Trinity Tidings and on the Trinity blog; talk about the plastics crisis with friends and family members; take action, and share your experiences and eco-tips with us on the Trinity blog (send them to Nancy Williard or to me).
This is surely an Earth Caring matter! We must take care of Mother Earth (Genesis 2:15).
Enrique P. Sanchez
P.S. Many thanks to Barb T. for the initial draft and thoughts and to Cindy Ann B. for feedback and edits.