The Plastic Convenience Trash Nation

Posted on November 2, 2015


Or maybe, the Plastic Convenience Trash Planet.

The other day I discovered that there is such a thing as a pre-packaged alcoholic beverage called a “Twistee Shot” (there is also a similar “Twisted Shot.”) It’s a little two-chambered plastic shot glass with a foil lid. Peel and drink. How handy. Or crass and lazy, depending on your viewpoint. My first thought on seeing this? What a plastic-trash-generating waste.

By now, I think most of us are aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the giant, slowly revolving gyre of plastic junk bobbing in the Pacific. Depending on who you ask, it is twice the size of Texas, or perhaps the size of Africa. Whatever – it’s BIG, and it’s only getting bigger.

According to the Worldwatch Institute,

Today, an average person living in Western Europe or North America consumes 100 kilograms of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging. Asia uses just 20 kilograms per person, but this figure is expected to grow rapidly as economies in the region expand (Lila’s note: consider that the population of Asia is much higher than that of Western Europe and North America, so the total amount of plastics produced per person is already enormous).

I have relatively little reservation about the production and use of some plastic, which certainly has advantages over other materials. As the Worldwatch Institute reminds us:

The environmental and social benefits of plastics must be weighed against the problems that the durability and high volume of this material present to the waste stream. Plastics help to reduce food waste by keeping products fresh longer, allow for the manufacture of life-saving healthcare equipment, reduce packaging mass compared with other materials, improve transportation efficiency, and have large potential for use in renewable energy technologies.

But I draw the line at pure convenience, at the sort of plastic packaging that really is all about laziness or poor time management or ignorant squeamishness. Much of what I have in mind is plastic food or water packaging. I am mystified by single-use plastic water bottles, for example; is it so hard to carry a reusable bottle or thermos and refill it from the tap (much more cheaply)? Is it really so horrible to drink from a fountain, as we all used to (for free)?   Another peeve is single-use, sectioned snack packs like Lunchables or such: is it really so hard or time-consuming to pack a few crackers and a little meat and cheese into a reusable lunch box (much more cheaply)? Or, back to the Twistee Shots that I recently encountered, is it really so difficult to keep a few durable shot glasses around, and mix your own drinks?

I know you can think of a myriad of pretty unnecessary single-use plastic things. Your own peeves. Things that could be made of some other material, either biodegradable, or durable and reusable. Things that need not exist at all (I have in mind those little plastic toothpick/flosser things).

But we can’t be bothered, can we? I used to endure some ribbing from my cubicle-mates when I carried my lunch to work: I had a real fork wrapped in a cloth napkin, and a real glass to drink from. “Ohhh, la-la,” my co-workers would say. “Fancy!” But I was really just trying not to generate an unnecessary mound of lunch trash five days a week. Strangely, this never occurred to them unless I explained it (“Huh!” The light bulb would go on over their heads), but even then, they thought it seemed like an awful lot of work to drag my fork and napkin home every day (the glass stayed at work). My co-workers, just like most people I have ever known, think it’s much more convenient to spend more money on fast food and then throw away the trash; or to bring in disposable plastic utensils and paper napkins with their home-made lunches. Either way, it’s trash… trash… trash.

Even as our global population booms, we are all generating more and more plastic garbage per person. The news that Asia’s billions will soon catch up to us in trash production hardly sets me at ease. We should all be finding ways to reduce the production, consumption and disposal of plastic, rather than accelerating its use.