The biggest problem with plastic is also its greatest strength: it lasts forever. It doesn’t break down. Since the widespread use of plastics began, around the time I was born in the 1960s, we have poured a steady avalanche of plastics into our landfills and oceans. And all of it is still there.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic bottles take 450 years to degrade. Plastic caps and thicker plastic like pill bottles take more like 1,000 years to degrade. That means that a water bottle you throw away today will still be around, in the soil or the water, in the year 2468.
Hence the Pacific Garbage Patch, 80,000 tons of plastics gyrating in the ocean, covering more than 1.6 million square kilometers, more than twice the size of Texas.
Hence the plastics littering our beaches, turning landfills into indestructible plastic mountains, and even showing up in our own organs, as microplastic pellets find their way into the water supply and move back up the food chain to us.
How could we ever think this would be sustainable? What have we been thinking, as we’ve gone along with the plastics producers and marketers and heedlessly thrown away so-called “disposable” plastic bottles and plastic bags?
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 80% of the trash in U.S. landfills is recyclable. This means that 80% of the trash creating our towering landfills is not only indestructible but also valuable—we’re throwing away billions of dollars’ worth of recyclable materials every year.
It’s bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and bad for us.
Admittedly, this is partly because recycling is difficult and often not profitable.
But if the full costs of throwing plastic into our waters and earth were measured, plastic would suddenly get a lot more expensive, making the recycling industry much more lucrative.
For now, plastic seems cheap. It ischeap today. But in the long run, if we continue to increase the size of our landfills and ocean plastic catastrophe zones, the true cost of our folly will be counted.
Our plastic waste problem is symbolic of a deeper and wider rift between human beings and our planet. Seeing ourselves as separate and more important than the rest of life on Earth, we have failed to understand that what we put into the Earth, Water and Sky will inevitably come back to inhabit us too.
We can’t poison the planet and expect to remain healthy ourselves.
Our technological prowess as humans is our great gift but also our Achilles heel. We have not yet learned that our purpose here on Earth is to serve as stewards of the planet.
We have not yet understood that the true measure of our success as a species is whether we succeed in making Earth more beautiful, healthy and vibrant with our presence.
Over the past 300 years or so, since the rise of capitalism and industrialization, we humans have spread more ugliness than beauty, more sickness than health and more devastation than vibrancy on this planet.
Let ours be the generation that turns this around. We can start right here where we are, living mindfully in our own homes and towns, and sending the balance and beauty that we live rippling outwards into the wider world.
This is what I call aligning the personal, political and planetary for a thriving future.
It starts in the present—right now, right here, with you—right where you are.
Every moment presents new choices and opportunities to live in harmony with the broader community of life on Earth.
Everything we do today creates another plank on the bridge towards the brighter future we yearn to live into.
Will we create a plastic monument to a dying planet? Or a leafy living garden?
The choice is up to each one of us. What will you choose?
Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.is an associate professor of comparative literature and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, with a special interest in writing for social and environmental justice, leadership and public speaking. Her memoir, What I Forgot …And Why I Remembered: A Journey to Environmental Awareness and Activism Through Purposeful Memoir, was one of six finalists for the 2018 International Book Awards in the autobiography/memoir category. Her writer’s guide, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir: A Writer’s Companion won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. She offers her workshops in purposeful memoir nationally and internationally, and lectures widely on issues of environment, activism and the arts. In addition to authoring many articles and book chapters, she is the editor of the anthologiesWomen Writing Resistance in Latin America and the Caribbean (Beacon Press, 2017); African Women Writing Resistance: Contemporary Voices(University of Wisconsin Press, 2010);and Writing Fire: Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words (Green Fire Press, 2017). Find out more at http://www.jenniferbrowdy.com.