Customs and societal norms are handed down to us from previous generations, but they can also change over time. We continue to challenge racism, sexism, and other ‘isms’ in the US, leading to positive changes in what is normal and legal in our society. However if left unexamined or unquestioned we can pass down harmful customs and traditions. We accept single-use plastic as the norm. Why?
Plastic is normalized through overuse, to the point that questioning it seems impossible. Sure at times using plastic is more convenient, but at times it creates more work . If a person only is buying one small item they often expect a plastic bag. One item? Is it really that much more convenient to bag one item? I would argue that it is actually inconvenient to take the time to get it bagged. Bananas are already packed by nature and need no produce bag, yet the Whole Foods In Silver Spring has the produce bags located right next to them, implying they want you to take the time to bag them. I have done a 15 minute observation (which is all I could do without looking like a stalker) of this set-up at Whole Foods. 80% of people took the extra minute to bag their bananas!
Kids birthday parties can be some of the worst violators of plastic use, way past the line of convenience. My son was once invited to a birthday party of 30 kids. The mother bought a balloon for each chair. 30 balloons. She told me she bought the helium tank and spent at least an hour blowing balloons up. Would the party be less festive with only 3 balloons, or was the 30 balloons really necessary to get the effect of decor? Then there are the goodie bags. Many times my kids receive a plastic bag stuffed with small plastic toys. The time it takes to stuff all these bags is inconvenient, and for what? Wouldn’t one item suffice to fulfill the cultural norm goodie bag? If I give a goodie bag, I just give one item such as pencils, notebooks, or a book.
I think of the planet as a huge chessboard. Cultural norms are moving players on the board. If the plastic industry was on one side of the chess board, and a few underpaid, overworked environmentalist were on the other side, the plastic industry would be 8 moves ahead. Since World War II, when plastic was manufactured for commercial use, they have been introducing their cheap convenient products into our cultural norms. The grocery chains Kroger and Safeway adapted the plastic bag in 1982, which quickly caused all grocery and retail chains to change away from paper to plastic. In 1989, as Americans were becoming more health conscience, the soda industry started to sell water in plastic bottles, convincing the public they had better water then tap. The single plastic pod coffee maker known as Keuring, invented in 1998, hit record sales in 2004.
Environmentalist have tried to promote reusable grocery bags and bringing your own water bottle. These have been meet by moderate success. Some cities are taxing plastic bags. Another environmental win has been banning plastic straws. Still for every little win, it seems that the plastic industry comes up with yet another item that enters the cultural norm, such as food pouches for toddlers, or the fidget spinners. I almost would say the plastic industry could call checkmate. They won….but what have they won. Maybe this is game we should not be playing.