Last year a member of my local Zero Waste group on Facebook asked if she should do bulk bin shopping in the context of living 20 miles away from the nearest store to offer it. Commentators on the post agreed that it probably was not a good idea. The additional miles driven would likely have a larger carbon footprint than the amount of plastic saved.
I wondered if there is a way to express miles driven as a quantity of single-use plastic. Here is my best ballpark estimate:
1 mile driven = 5.3 standard size plastic water bottles
March For Our Lives, the protest for common sense gun control, took place 5 weeks after the mass shooting that happened in Parkland, Florida, was one of the largest protests in American History, turning out 1.2 million people in 880 different cities across the United States. People were incensed, moved, and demanded change. I see this same anger as, yet again, we have two mass shootings back-to-back, in Dayton and El Paso. It seems like mass shootings have become a bi-monthly event in the United States.
In sixth grade my Social Studies teacher told us to look around the classroom. He then said 50% of your classmates are predicted to contract AIDS. I was mortified. I thought to myself “I am never going to have sex”. My teacher was not totally fear mongering as these were close to the actual projections at the time. If you followed the AIDS epidemic, you can see where they came to this conclusion. In 1920 it was first recorded only in the African nation of Congo, but by 1970 every single continent had cases of AIDS and kept growing by large numbers. Luckily the worst predictions regarding the AIDS epidemic in the United States never manifested. In 1995 40,000 deaths were AIDS/HIV related, but that dropped sharply to 10,000 AIDS/HIV by 2013. The same study found that even the African continent was starting to see a decline. The new prediction is that AIDS/HIV will see an even larger decline.
About 40,000 years ago, humans switched from a bartering system to paper money system. It was deemed a superior system to pay back debt. It also became a more efficient system for the wealthy to tax the poor for using their land, and leaving the poor to forever being in slave-like debt. Paper money’s invention probably prevented combat war between different social classes and tribes, as it offered hope that one day the poor could work its way out of poverty.
Today we simply forget that paper money is just a man-made resource. It has no value in the natural world. You can’t plant it to grow food or cure diseases. Its only value exists in human culture. Since humans base so much of their behavior on money then saving it would be advantageous. However, the goal of corporations is always to get you to “buy, buy, buy!” Everyday. All the time. They need us to be consumers so they can top record-breaking profits from the previous year. They have made us consumers more than any other generations or country that ever existed on this planet.
Corporations have devised an ingenious psychological trick to get us to buy by keeping the unit price cheap, which I call the “devil’s pricing”. It’s when something is so cheap or free we literally stop thinking. We stop thinking of our higher value or our spiritual needs. If a new shirt is only $3 anyone can make an educated guess that human and child labor rights where violated to make that shirt.
To see the devil’s pricing in action lets look at the plastic bottle of water companies. The average consumer pays about $1.50 per water bottle. The average consumer reasons “I can afford that” and at that low of a price its not cutting into my long-term goals. Yet Americans spend about $12.3 billion annually on bottled water! That’s hundreds of dollars per person on average. Imagine what else we could spend that money on. So what looked like a $1.50 really adds up, both individually and collectively.
It’s worth the research to find out where that bottled water is really coming from, and is it better than tap water (which is free). But who is going to do the research for a product that is $1.50? Most people do research for products that are expensive like cars, houses, and daycare centers, not for the millions of things for which you pay a unit price of $5.00 or less. I have looked into the plastic water bottle industry and what I found out are some seriously sinister things. They often just use tap water! Perhaps they filter that tap water but then they package it in plastic, which is counter-productive to the filtering. Plastic, which is made from petrochemicals, interacts with any substance that it is packed in. This is different than glass, which is made from sand and it is chemically inert and does not interact with the materials it is in. That’s why things taste better from glass. While tap water is monitored by law, there is no oversight to the plastic water industry. So when you hear about lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, they were able to catch that because of the constant oversight by the government. To learn more about Safe Water Act that ensures Tap Water is healthy drinking water you can look at :https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-safe-drinking-water-act.
This is not true of the bottled water industry. There are no laws that ensure that bottled water is safe. It’s often stealing an invaluable natural resource from another community. It’s hard to feel like your stealing something if you feel like you fairly paid the price for a bottle of water, and again you do not know the life-cycle of that product. You do not know that the water was taken from a water- strapped community. Nestle, who sells water under trade names such as Deer Park and Poland Springs, was recently caught taking water from San Bernardino National Forest in California. Drought-ridden California!
That $1.50 now seems almost criminal. If it is hard to get people to stop buying cheap things, its harder to get people to stop excepting and refusing free things. If it is free, it is most likely plastic. The average consumer reasons “If it is free then I am not spending my money, and it does not effect any long-term goals I want to accomplish with my money”. Yes, if you look at it from the point of view of paper money there is zero loss in accepting plastic. But if you start to evaluate it against mother nature and father time, the loss is incalculable. Incalculable by paper money. You do not treasure a free plastic straw for eternity and add it to your belongings. You use it maybe an hour, sometimes just 5 minutes, then the wait-staff adds it to the growing landfills. The US has 13,000 landfills to date. Landfills that you cannot grow trees on. Trees are needed to needed to purify the air, fight climate change, and provide habitats for wildlife. How do you calculate the loss? Free is not free.
Refusing free plastic is the best thing you can do to beat plastic pollution. Recycling hardly happens with plastic. It’s sub-par material that degrades so easily that recycling it is difficult. If plastic was valuable, corporations would be paying people to do beach clean-ups. The recycling myth has lead to people not understanding that is in their and the planet’s best interest to refuse plastic. My 7 year old and 3 year old have not used a plastic straw in 5 years. That’s 500 straws.
To commit to never making trash is difficult, but if you can commit to one thing such as refusing straws that is a good first step. You will be surprised by how much trash you avoided over the course of a year.
Small steps add up to a large impact over time. I hope you will take that first step!