There was a movie a long time ago called The Graduate. It was about a young man who was about my age then, who was also of course about the same age as everyone in my life who was of much significance to me. He had just graduated from college and was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. You know, where to go from here and all that. And lo and behold, so was I. As was practically everybody else I knew who wasn’t pregnant or drafted or on their way to medical school.
At a point early on in the movie, an ‘adult’ figure, who was a particularly smarmy character, told ‘The Graduate’ where the future of this country was. “Plastics,” he said smugly, holding up his martini. “Plastics.” It was a metaphor for everything we did not want to become. And he was the personification of everyone we did not want to be.
It was meant to be a funny line, and of course we all laughed. But as it turned out, he pretty much nailed it. The last third of the 20th Century and the first quarter of the 21st Century have really been constructed out of plastic. Boxcar after boxcar, crate after crate, shelf after shelf, landfill after landfill. We are all users and abusers. With really no end in sight.
As the technology advanced, it became cheaper and cheaper to make. It was lighter and stronger than anything else, and our homes and workplaces were soon filled with it. Every grand ballroom, skyscraper, stadium, swimming pool, kindergarten class and cubby hole in America was overrun with it.
Even those of us who found plastic problematic, even abhorrent, could look around our homes and recognize hundreds of items made partially or entirely from this ubiquitous polymer. And of course there are millions of little teeny things inside other things that are derived from petrochemicals. The bottom line is of course that we have come to depend on plastic. It has insinuated itself into our daily lives, and we could not live the way we live without it. Read it and weep--Plastics Are Freaking Us.
And it goes without saying that it is an immensely profitable industry. Most of those who followed Shallow Man’s advice and either made a career in it or invested in companies that used it have become wealthy. Their children all went to good colleges, and they’ve all retired well.
The World itself has prospered as manufacturers crank it out. We pay less and less for our goods and packaging, and then we drop all of it into those little lightweight, disposable bags. The ones that blow across the highway and hang in the trees from sea to shining sea. It is all so convenient, and as far as we know, it’s ‘free’. Win-win, eh.
Hardly, pilgrim. There is a price for this convenience. As we know, it is in no way ‘free’. There are hidden costs out the wazoo and not-so-hidden costs up the bum. The problem of course is that after you make plastic, you can’t unmake it. This is a real complication on a planet which depends on things decomposing and being biologically reused, returning to their original forms in some reasonably short period of time. Something perhaps less than several thousand lifetimes.
In its simplest chemical form, when you combine molecules which have never, ever been combined in Nature, they do not de-combine nearly as easily or as quickly as one might hope. These are wholly new chemicals which have emerged from the laboratories—an astounding, bewildering array of them. The chemical bonds are not familiar or accessible to existing bacteria, which is the usual manner in which things decay. There are no naturally occurring organisms that can break them down. It takes a while for Evolution to develop them. Give Nature another couple million years or so and She’ll no doubt cook up some dandy micro-organisms to do the job. But not now. Now, they are damned hard to break down, noxious to burn and dangerous and ugly flotsam in our oceans.
And the point is that all of this had become public knowledge by the early '80s. The Plastic Industry was in crisis. There was already too much public, plastic trash. People knew that and many of us were getting angry. Plastics and its Godfather, Big Oil, were at the center of an enormous environmental backlash. The Green Movement was strong back then, and some influential and formidable politicians were dedicated Environmentalists.
The powerful forces in the Petrochemical Industry, however, understood that public opinion might lead to more Regulations which would be a disastrous and expensive inconvenience, a severe threat to their business model. At worst, this could mean an outright ban on plastics. It needed an immediate fix.
Plastic Manufacturers scrambled desperately for ways to get ahead of it. They leaned heavily on the Organic Chemists to fix the problem. To make plastics just go away after we used them. But it was beyond their scope. There were neither organic nor inorganic fixes for this dilemma.
Since there was no physical solution, they decided that they would fix it the good ol’ American way--with Advertising. They handed it over to the boys in the Marketing Department. The Worldwide Glut of Plastics became not an Environmental problem, but a Public Relations problem!
And in their mad scramble, they chanced upon recycling as a way to improve their image. They decided that if they could convince people that plastics could be re-used over and over that the public would happily continue buying their products. “Yes, sir. As long as you recycle,” they said, “plastic will not be a problem. It is a valuable commodity to us, and we will use it and reuse it until the cows come home. All of it.”
And they began putting the now ubiquitous ‘chasing-arrows’ recycling logo, the one with the number inside, on ALL their plastic products. Even though they knew only a small percentage could be recycled. “We’re all in this together,” they said, as the jingle played and mom and dad walked along the seashore with the kids. “Just put it in the bin. We’ll do the rest.”
The problem was/is (Surprise, surprise!!) it was all a Lie. Most plastics could NOT be economically recycled. They KNEW that. There are memos and emails going back to the 70s and now former executives coming out of the woodwork stating that they KNEW there was no economically viable way to recycle most plastics. They KNEW that recycling was ultimately not going to work in any significant way. They looked at recycling as a way to improve the IMAGE of their product. We've been sorting our trash for decades, believing it would be recycled. But the truth is the vast majority of the plastics we used never WERE recycled. And never WILL BE. Over the last seven decades, less than 10 per cent of plastic waste has been recycled.
But they spent $$ millions telling us that their products could be recycled. They produced heart-warming little infomercials about their dedication to making this a cleaner, more sustainable world while at the same time spending much, much more lobbying AGAINST legislation that would actually prevent and prohibit plastic pollution.
I don’t know how to sugarcoat this, sports fans. We’ve been bamboozled, hornswoggled, hoodwinked, conned. They never WANTED recycling to work. They produce petroleum which is used to MAKE plastic. Recycling was a competitor. It was false advertising at its most insidious. Pure fantasy. They spent millions in order to make trillions.
And it was a Lie which we bought. Probably because we wanted to believe it. Thus relieved of the guilt of being ‘polluters’ and convinced we were good Citizens of the Earth, most of us put aside our foreboding concerns about the Environment, and merrily continued to freely buy plastic stuff in its plastic containers and then put it in those happy bins. We allowed the Industry to sidestep the public’s opposition to a harmful product. The ruse allowed us to continue buying this product that made our lives simpler and more convenient. We were duped, friends, and now who exactly is caught holding the fucking grocery bag filled with plastic poop?
I tell you, I have pretty much tolerance for human weakness. Having spent three-score-and-twelve struggling with my own flawed humanity, I acknowledge that we are, most of us, poorly equipped to do it well. I recognize that we are imperfect creatures, at times greedy and selfish. I grant it’s all easy to fall into.
But these faults I do not forgive. Bastards! They sat in a board room and concocted a Lie which they KNEW would wind up harming all of Humanity. And they have for almost 50 years perpetuated this LIE. For their own benefit. It was a blatant betrayal of the Public Trust. It was Predatory Capitalism at its worst. And as a direct result, our Oceans and our Waterways and our Groundwater are choking in plastic particles and residues. It is a mess. With no end in sight. By 2050, it's estimated the global production of plastic will triple. As the oil and gas industry — which provides the source materials for plastics —faces a future of declining demand for fuel, the pressure for more plastic production will be relentless.
So now, I have just ‘graduated’ again. From a career, of sorts. And I am similarly wondering what to do with the rest of my life. You know, where to go from here and all that. And I can think of no better purpose than using my anger to put pressure on Big Oil and Big Plastics to eat their own waste. To pay for their damages and make it right. Just like Tobacco had to do. Just like Big Pharma. And it all starts with Public Opinion.
I will push this in whatever ways I can but most obviously in joining others who have been smarter and angrier and more aware than me for many years. Movements that are full blown and viable. It is a big windmill, I grant. But I have a lot of rage, and this is a Machine that deserves every bit of it.
Plastic grocery bags is a good place to start.
Greenpeace.org, moveon.org, earthday.org to name a few.