Your Chewing Gum is Made of Plastic, and Other Things I Didn’t Know

In this post, I finally read about how plastic is hiding in plain sight in all SORTS of things that we wouldn’t expect, and why that’s kinda not good. Curious? Let’s dive in!

Plastic Kills

Plastic Free - Beth TerryToday I’m reporting back on Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry.

The impetus for this book is the author’s experiencing of one day stumbling upon a photo on the internet of a baby albatross. It was dead and had decomposed to the point where you could see inside its ribcage… to the stomach full of plastic pellets. Its parents had tried to feed it, but they unknowingly fed it so many tiny plastic bits (that looked like fish eggs) that the baby bird starved to death.

plastic bird stomach
Not the same photo, but a similar one.

I mean, it’s pretty horrific, if you think about it: starving to death because you’re filling your stomach with something it can never process. Ugh.

It was an emotionally impactful moment for the author, and she decided to start exploring plastic: What was it? Where was it? Why didn’t it eventually go away? How did it relate to her? This book is the result of that questioning process.

So… what about plastic?

There is SO much information in this book — I could never remember it all, but thankfully the book is organized as sort of a reference manual, so I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it. Here are some of the main “big picture” things I learned:

  • Most plastic NEVER goes away. EVER. To me, this is the same kind of “whoa”-ness as when I read the very first book in this project (like a million years ago) and realized that we have NO safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. We also have NO safe way to dispose of most plastic because IT NEVER BIODEGRADES. Like, when we think of decomposition, it’s not just that stuff sits around and slowly vanishes, it’s literally being chemically broken down by other organisms — basically eaten. So when a tree log decomposes, it’s becoming fungi food. Or when an animal decomposes, it becomes fly food. But most plastic doesn’t EVER decompose, because it’s not anything’s food!
  • Plastic’s longevity (aka FOREVER) is surprising considering our “disposable” attitude toward it. It’s cheap to make… so we feel like it’s “disposable” — but again, it NEVER goes away! Every bit of plastic that’s ever been made is still present SOMEwhere on the earth, as Wikipedia cites, “down to the molecular level.” So that plastic spoon I used to eat my soup after church this morning? I threw it away after using it once, but it’ll still be here — unchanged — when I’m dead. I will turn to dirt before that spoon does. And I used it once. As the author puts it, “Why create disposable containers and packaging out of a material that lasts forever?” (p.28) Well, because…
  • Plastic is flexible (literally) and cheap, so we give it a low value. Many objects in our society are valued based on the rarity of the material or the time or skill it took to make the item. Since plastic is in high supply and easy to mass-produce, that means we think of it as cheap — and it is cheap, monetarily and temporarily. But it’s costly in the long run, because someday we’re going to have to deal with all this non-biodegradable, non-edible, chemical-absorbing matter with which we’re blanketing our planet…
  • But can’t we recycle??? Well… only to a point. Recycling is toted as an environmental “solution,” but the problem is that each time we re-formulate a recycled material (whether paper or plastic), it’s lower and lower quality (it’s called “downcycling”) until eventually it won’t hold together anymore and needs to be discarded. The problem is that even after that much use, remember, plastic is still a polymer (aka holding together) at the molecular level — so even once we can’t recycle it anymore it’s still plastic and it will still last forever.
  • Things I didn’t know were made of plastic: most fabric (“synthetic” = made of plastic), every writing utensil I own, most carpet, many glues, books (plastic coated cover paper), toilet paper (ouch), and even chewing gum (p.206) – GROSS.

WOOF. I don’t know about you, but that feels a leeeeeetle bit terrifying. It’s so ubiquitous, and it’s never going away.

And you know what? I can’t honestly say anything to make it better. There’s not really a “happy ending” to this book…

So NOW what?

Despite the looming-ness of the plastic problem, this book does a GREAT job of keeping a positive, encouraging, non-shaming tone, which is important when you’re dealing with a topic where your reader realizes they are literally CLOTHED IN the problem. It can feel really overwhelming. But Beth Terry really takes time to say, “Hey — small steps. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t get paralyzed.” I really appreciate that about this book — it’s so user-friendly and accessible.

That said, and while I really do support personal steps to be thoughtful about plastic consumption, as Barack Obama is quoted as saying at the conclusion of this book, “We can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed the lightbulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.” (p.309)

Yes, we started composting at our house. Yes, I stopped buying new clothing and have tried to shop only at thrift stores or on Craigslist for already-made items. Yes, we buy in bulk from the co-op using reusable containers as much as we can. Yes, I’ve been more aware when I’m using or buying a plastic object. Yes, I’ve even started washing out and reusing plastic Ziploc bags, even though I hate the smooshy feeling of washing warm, wet plastic.

BUT. Two things.

  1. Not everyone can afford to do those things. (Heck, not everyone even has access to a grocery store let alone a co-op.)
  2. Washing my plastic bags won’t save the world.

It’s REALLY important to remember that for things this big, change comes both at the personal level AND at the big, systematic level. I really like one idea from the book: the personal changes are daily reminders and conversation starters in the pursuit of bigger, wider change.

And especially because, as I learned in All Our Relations, environmental issues often disproportionately impact poor communities and communities of color, it is IMPERATIVE that we not buy a $30 zero-plastic water bottle, pat ourselves on the back, and go back to sleeping well at night. Environmentalism is not about assuaging our personal anxiety; it’s about working to care well for our fellow Earthlings (and ourselves!) on a large scale.

Conclusion

To me, one of the biggest messages of this book is that even when something is “out of sight, out of mind” it still has an impact. When we put something in the trash (or even in the recycling), we forget about it. It’s done. But “trash” doesn’t mean “gone” — we can’t discard something outside the environment. Likewise, just because I don’t live on an Indian reservation or in Flint, Michigan doesn’t mean I can shut my ears and go back to my nice, clean tap water. Life is relational; ecosystems are relational; so our environmentalism needs to be relational, too, and advocate for all our relations.

Meta-Conclusion

Well, folks, that’s the end! I’ve completed my investigation into Imperial Geography (for now). I answered my questions about why the US government offered tree claims to homesteaders, what happened to the land when European settlers came en masse to Turtle Island, and why environmentalism matters for real people today. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned, and I’m sure it’ll come right along with me as I dive into my next reading / learning / blogging project… which I’ll tell you about in another post. 😉

Hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about — I know I’ve got plenty. Thanks for reading along with me!  ~Rebekah

[EDIT] P.S. Want to join in the next reading project? Here’s the first post!

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