Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
The 1967 film “The Graduate” was a wildly influential cinematic experience for baby boomers who were trying to figure out life in general, and their futures specifically. The above piece of dialogue is arguably one of the most memorable in the history of movie making. Over 50 years later, an entire new generation is uttering the ubiquitous word “plastics,” joined with the word “future,” but the words are not spoken together with anything but dread.
Plastic — can’t live without it, but soon we won’t be able to live with it. The circular logo used by recyclers everywhere — reduce, reuse, recycle — is now a wheel that has lost its axle. As quickly as we try to repair the wheel, it breaks down again. The earth is literally drowning in plastic.
I’ve been an avid recycler since the days in high school, when we smashed tin and aluminum cans with sledge hammers and dismantled envelopes, separating staples and plastic windows from every piece of mail. Several years ago, I enrolled in the “Master Recycling” program and added to my knowledge — and my distress — about recycling in our beautiful corner of the world. Since then, it’s gotten even more difficult to be a recycler. Although we still dutifully put out recycling bins every two weeks — comingling paper, metal cans, boxes, plastic bottles and tubs — these materials no longer go to China to be recycled. Rather, they head directly east to the Arlington landfill, where they join all other kinds of garbage in perpetuity.
I try to be a conscientious reducer and re-user of plastic, but from the moment I wake up in the morning until I close my eyes at night, I’m involved with plastic. Morning ablutions include a plastic toothbrush, shampoo dispensed from a plastic bottle, a razor blade made from metal and plastic. The empty shampoo bottle is technically recyclable, but in reality, when it goes in your blue bin it’s on its way to the landfill, not to a place where it will be repurposed.
I don’t drink coffee, but I’m witness to others who do on a daily basis. At the coffee shop, the “paper” cup is coated with plastic and the lid is 100 percent plastic. Eating a healthy breakfast of yogurt? Yup, it’s off to the landfill with that little container.
At the grocery store, my husband and I make a concerted effort to make purchases based on the products’ amounts of non-recyclable packaging materials. We’ve had to wean ourselves of the delicious chocolate muffins sold in the store’s bakery; the plastic clam shell package is neither refillable at the store with more baked goods, nor recyclable. We buy mushrooms in bulk, scooping them into a brown paper sack rather than buying them pre-wrapped in plastic boxes. We wash the plastic meat trays we accumulate and fill them with cookies at Christmas time. We bring washed-at-home plastic bags to refill with produce and bulk foods. We avoid buying lots of foods in the freezer section. Items like frozen pizza look like their packaging is recyclable, but most frozen food packaging is made not only from paper, but also from a plastic material that gives the packaging “wet strength.”
Recently, I had surgery at the local hospital. Using plastic disposables in a hospital keeps us safe from errant germs, but the volume of plastic waste I generated while there was staggering. Where did all those tubes, gloves, syringes and pads go after they left my hospital room?
Several months ago, I sent the Sierra Club a donation. To my shock and dismay, I received in return a large plastic package. Inside was a backpack, made mostly from plastic and manufactured in China, emblazoned with the Club’s logo. I never requested this “gift” from them, and was frankly appalled that a renowned environmental charity would send me such a thing. I dropped it off at the local warming shelter, where I hope some needy homeless person was able to use, and reuse, it.
Indeed, there may be a great future in plastics as Mr. McGuire uttered to Benjamin. But I want to understand how we have the ingenuity to create all these plastic products, but no idea how to reuse and repurpose them. Recently the Hood River News profiled Sandra Piatt, a student at the local high school, who wrote an award-winning essay about the difficulty of avoiding single use plastics. Sandra and her fellow students are demanding that we pay more attention to taking care of the environment. Those of us old enough to remember “The Graduate” have done a lousy job of it. Happily, many in the younger generations are stepping up to take responsibility for our addiction to plastic. And small steps, like our local ban on plastic grocery sacks, may help us keep the recycling circle going.