Friday, November 13, 2009

Drastic Plastic

This past Monday, I taught a recycled art project to my daughter's Kindergarten/1st Grade class. After they were finished, I stood in front of the room and talked for a few minutes about recycling and resourcefulness (their word of the day).

The next morning, when I was dropping Anouk off for school, one of the Kindergarteners came up to me and said, in a very rehearsed way, "I am not going to recycle. I will just bring all of my garbage to you for your art projects." I had the distinct impression that a parent told her to say it, and it emphasized a defeated feeling that I carry with me most of the time.

Everywhere I go, I notice the plastic and other garbage. Some garbage uses precious resources, but will eventually biodegrade, or at least sit in a landfill for a thousand years without leaching toxins into the dirt (like glass.) However, plastic is created from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. And plastic does not biodegrade - it photodegrades, which means it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, releasing dioxins into the environment in the process. Dioxins are produced during the creation and destruction of plastic, especially with PVC, and are known carcinogens. Recent tests show that, in places where dioxin levels are highest, women in those populations have a corresponding high incidence of miscarriage. Who knows what other effects are currently taking place?

There is an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where currents flow together and bring floating plastics to one localized spot. It is roughly twice the size of Texas. An easy place to start learning more about this is by typing Great Pacific Garbage Patch into Wikipedia. There are also videos posted on Youtube where you can see what it is like.

It is easy for people to simply throw plastics away and imagine that the garbage is gone, or far far away. But, those dioxins are now found in most sea life, and it is getting into our bodies directly (by eating fish) and indirectly (by eating things that are part of the food chain.) While watching a presentation by Captain Charles Moore, I was really stunned by one particular sad story. Many sea-birds, like the Albatross, gather their food from the surface of the ocean, but cannot distinguish between live food and floating plastic. These birds are collecting plastics and feeding it to their young. The photo that I attached shows the remains of a baby Albatross that starved to death with a belly full of plastic garbage. This is becoming a serious problem, and it breaks my heart.

Here I am, doing my best to prevent any unnecessary plastic from coming into my house, finding ways to incorporate it into building projects when it does, and hoping to raise some level of awareness through my art. But, I am plagued by a feeling that I'm not doing enough. Some say that we can overcome these problems one person at a time, but I don't see how that is going to get us out of this. There needs to be more effort at the corporate level. We need to develop alternatives that can be used by the medical profession and in so many other places where plastic has become the only real product that will work for certain things. The fact that nurses, dentists, food prep workers, etc. all over the world are putting on and tossing out plastic gloves one after another all day long haunts me. The image fast food cups and lids generated every day lives in my head. As a society, we need to find ways to reuse containers, invent biodegradeable plastics, and stop wrapping every single product in layers of thick plastic.

One other source that I absolutely love is Story of Stuff. It is a 20 minute video you can find online that is very accessible for anyone, including older kids. It outlines the problem in a very concise way and offers ideas for a different way of life.

One more story that I heard during an interview with Anne Leonard really floored me. She visits garbage dumps all over the world, and she learned that a large number of children are killed in garbage landslides. She said she met one family that had lost 4 children to garbage. She said, "Children are dying of garbage." It is time to make a change, folks.

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