I was at my favorite coffee bar recently, ordering two muffins. The barista proceeded to place the two muffins in a large plastic container meant for to-go food. I politely protested, saying here, you can reuse this. I really didn’t need the large plastic container to carry out two muffins.
Until now, I’ve been a sort-of shy, closet environmentalist, not wanting to turn people off with a perceived preachy arrogance that environmentalists can oftentimes have. I found it easier to just privately go about my own business of recycling, wrapping my daughter’s behind in cloth diapers and using cloth wipes, forgoing plastic-packaged body washes for old-fashioned bars of soap, storing food in glass jars or bowls and reusable baggies (Planet Wise), and as often as I can remember to, toting cloth bags into and out of the grocery store.
But the person behind the coffee counter took out the muffins already wrapped in paper, handed them to me, then threw away the plastic container — just like that, without any consciousness for the energy it took to make it, nor the forever of time that container will harbor in a landfill. The plastic container never had a use but to hold my blueberry muffins for less than a minute.
I left the store with a weight of guilt — derived from my Protestant Minnesota heritage — that I hadn’t intercepted.
Last weekend, my sister was visiting. We went to the store, and as I always do, I placed vegetables directly into the cart rather than in those thin plastic bags you find in the produce section. I figure I can wash them when I get home, why waste a bag? My sister started frantically grabbing plastic bags, alarmed by my shroud-free vegetables.
I pictured natural marine life in the ocean shrouded in plastic. Our minute-use plastics find their way to oceans by way of storm drains and watersheds.
Telluride resident Jeb Berrier made me more aware of our plastic oblivion in his 2010 award-winning documentary “Bag It.” What stuck with me most from the film was the “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” an area of the Pacific created by currents of the North Pacific Gyre.
The currents form a concentration of plastic waste twice the area of Texas. This “plastic soup,” as “Bag It” calls it, has levels of fragmented plastic 40 times greater than that of plankton. Disgustingly, particles are found in fish, marine mammals and reptiles, according to the website 5Gyres.org.
Little-known culprits to interrupting the marine food web are micro-beads found in facial products. In the Great Lakes in 2012, a 5Gyres study found that there were 600,000 plastic micro-beads per square kilometer. The organization has an ongoing campaign to stop manufacturers from using plastic micro-beads in products.
Bringing my daughter into the world made me acutely aware of plastic in our lives. I have no alternative but to buy fresh berries in plastic crates. The soda I drink is in cans lined with plastic; the orange juice, the deodorant, the lotion, contact solution, shampoo, ketchup, toilet paper, the chips we buy, even the meat all found in plastic packaging. And when you go to the checkout, the clerk places already plastic-wrapped items into plastic bags. Some receipts you get also contain traces of plastic chemicals.
Even if you try, and I think I do to an extent, it’s nearly impossible to avoid this material.
Yet we all have measurable levels of harmful BPA and Phthalates in our bodies. More studies are zoning in on the health effects of plastics, but the health effects to the earth are indisputable.
So every time I slurp something through a plastic straw — so gratuitously given everywhere you dine — that feeling of guilt just creeps up.