One of my holdover projects from last year: at my workplace (the Ontario Ministry of the Environment) we had a showing of the documentary “Bag It: Is Your Life Too Plastic?” about six weeks ago. I was totally planning to attend, and at the last minute got called away on another matter. (One of the problems with social events at work is that they have to be preempted if real work intervenes… and that happens far too often.) I’d heard that it was good, so I checked it out of our local library and had my own mini-showing. It’s about 75 minutes and very good… although I watched it over about four hours because I wanted to check on some of the facts it described as they came up.
The documentary (as its name implies) is about plastic bags. This is particularly appropriate in Toronto, where out city council has been discussing (approving and reversing) a ban on plastic bags (Globe and Mail, 2012). I remember when I lived in Arkansas, the standard question when shopping was: “paper or plastic?” I haven’t heard that since coming north. Now I personally approve of the ban, even more-so after seeing this movie. (Our illustrious mayor-like person calls such a ban “ludicrous”; knowing his perspective on environmental issues confirms my opinion [Globe and Mail, 2012].)We have been using our own bags for the last two years, reusing them so that we don’t add to the plastic problem described below.
The documentary begins with the great revolution that was the discovery of plastic: it’s light, flexible yet strong, easy to mold, durable, inexpensive and, as was thought, abundant: so abundant that at the time, the concept of “disposable” or “throwaway” living was all the rage. In the 1960s plastics were thought to be a true revolution in materials: and to some degree they were. But today we recognize that they need to be used correctly, not just for one-time products. First appearing in 1977, we now use one million plastic bags every minute. World consumption is 500 billion per year. That’s 326 per person per year. Yugh.That’s disposable.
Interestingly, plastic bags are being banned around the world: and here I thought we were being progressive. (I couldn’t find a list, but if you google “plastic bags banned” lots of examples show up.) Many of them are in the developing world. The UN Environmental Program confirms: “Some of the litter, like thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere-there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere” (UNEP, 2009)
Of course plastic bags aren’t the only problem. The documentary also reviewed the use of plastic bottles and disposable cups (one of my big issues with Tim Hortons and Starbucks… whose cups I see discarded… no, disposed of… everywhere). We throw away an average of 800 pounds of packaging waste per person, per year… that’s over 2 pounds per day. (That’s not necessarily you as an individual, but all the packaging that is used by companies and industries that you may never even see.) Bottled water… another pet peeve… uses plastic, single use bottles to ship designer water around the world… while 780 million people… one in ten people (11%)… worldwide lack access to clean water. (Water.org, 2012)
Of course a lot of opposition to the taxing of the banning of plastic bags… or bottles or anything… comes from the plastics industry. It’s their profit. Those dreaded lobbying groups spread lies and misinformation. They don’t care how much pollution is going out to the world… as long as they make a profit. Where have I heard this before? (Apparently the lobbying groups reached the Toronto City Council, anyway.)
There was a lot of discussion about what happens to… stuff… when it’s used and becomes garbage. When it goes… away. Wherever “away” is. Here in Toronto, until recently we sent all our garbage to a landfill in Michigan. Yes, we exported our garbage. (How’s that for “Not in my backyard”?) (City of Toronto Waste Facts, 2011) Now it’s shipped within the province to London (Ibid). Either way, we still don’t deal with it. It goes “away”. Recycling might feel good, and it does help… but “stuff” is not nearly as recyclable as we think. Although some recyclables (like glass and metal cans) can be “re”-cycled into the same kinds of products, potentially forever: most plastics are “down”-cycled into products that cannot be cycled through again. So they effectively only get one more use. Many cities send their plastic “recyclable” waste to China for down-cycling, such as Winnipeg (CBC, 2010).
A major subject is plastic trash in the ocean: which turns out to be one of the endpoints for trash not in a landfill. Plastic does not actually degrade or dissolve in the ocean, it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces that fish mistake for plankton (food). We might not see this happening… again, not in our backyard… but there are beaches in Hawaii that are a foot deep in this crushed plastic soup. One researcher, Markus Erikson, sailed a boat made of plastic bottles from California to Hawaii (Men’s Journal, 2012). Over 260 species of animals are affected by plastics in the ocean: through ingesting or entanglement. Imagine starving death because you’ve eaten so much plastic that your stomach is full, but there it is impossible to digest.
A whole section had to do with chemicals that are absorbed by the body. It was frightening. Most related to children, there were a couple (BPA and phthalates) that have been shown to be associated with a variety of conditions, including diabetes and autism. I’ve noted a lot of articles lately that claim such things as autism is “caused” by **, even though there’s nothing but anecdotal “proof”. Could is possibly be that they higher incidence of these problems are being caused instead by our use of plastics? The only unfortunate part about that is that it means we’d have to cut back on plastics. And the lobbyists would want that. It would be too inconvenient.
All this was almost too much information. What can we do? The authors listed the following as steps that can move in the right direction:
- buy products with less packaging
- avoid single-use, throw away packages
- don’t drink bottled water
- buy things used
- bring your own container when buying bulk
- buy less “stuff”
- reduce and reuse before recycling
- volunteer for little clean-ups
- all this goes back to: simplify your life. Live like they did before plastics. That’s a real conservative approach.
All in all, I found it to be a wonderful documentary and very motivating. Everyone should see it!