Ana Rampy, Guest Contributor • firstname.lastname@example.org
While hailed as one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century, plastic has caused significant damage to the Earth and to our culture. In fact, I would argue that plastic may be the physical embodiment of American exceptionalism or at least a conduit for the false notion of superiority. Our society emphasizes rugged individualism and upward mobility; it cares little for community and egalitarianism, as those do not fit the typical American model for success. Plastic, a convenient material, fits this touted model with its seductive cheapness and its seemingly endless uses. Of course, said uses are one-time only deals for the most part and rarely sustainable.
Ask yourself, how many times have you gone used a plastic straw in the past week? Or disposed of a plastic utensil after one use? Even the reusable items we do own probably were packaged in plastic, or have some sort of plastic element. It seems like an insurmountable issue, especially knowing that humans have literally created islands of garbage in the ocean through careless disposal. And is truly is careless— when we throw away garbage, it seems to just “go away.”
But nothing ever simply disappears, though many would apply the old saying “out of sight, out of mind” to garbage. And it certainly feels like an easy problem to ignore, because those affected most by plastic pollution are the disenfranchised communities of the world rather than the privileged. Birds, fish, and other animals are deeply affected through the consumption of plastic materials, especially if it’s in the ocean. Bottle caps and other colorful plastics are eaten by birds, and plastic micro-beads from face and body wash are eaten by fish; the animals’ bodies obviously cannot break down the unnatural material and end up suffering an excruciating, slow death. The threat of strangulation also is prominent for both land and sea creatures. Finally, animals can become malformed by getting encased in plastic, and again suffer through health issues and death.
Humans are also affected by this global issue. With hurricanes on the rise due to climate change, mismanaged landfills and just plain old litter can travel far from their original disposal site. The most recent incident involved tons of garbage washing up on on shores throughout the Caribbean islands, threatening the livelihoods of the local peoples who often depend on international eco-tourism and vacationing.
Because plastic can take anywhere from three to one million years to biodegrade depending on the type, it’s vitally important for us as a society to understand how things are created and what happens after we dispose of them. It’s time we as a community work together to change the perception of what “convenience” is, as well as broaden the scope for materials we can use on the daily.
There are ways we as individuals can make a change, too. Simple habits to form are refusing a straw at a restaurant when asked and carrying a reusable bag when shopping. I’ve noticed a lot more people have reusable water bottles, which is another easy solution. Other steps would be to petition your workplace or even Emory & Henry to use biodegradable materials during business luncheons or other events.
Accountability is important throughout this whole process. We have to hold each other accountable, but especially ourselves. If every single person contributed to changing the status quo of plastic use, this wouldn’t be an issue. But complacency, as familiar and comforting as it is, must be replaced with action. Because eventually, what’s seemingly out of sight will come right back to us, ironically and to the benefit of none.