Folks, this is about my "consumption" of plastic over the next year. I'm looking at what I have, what I buy, and why I seem to need this hundred and fifty year old man-made concoction more than my mother's fried chicken.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Week 17: Merry Plastichristmas

With my plastic Jesus
Goodbye and I’ll go far

I said with my plastic Jesus

Sitting on the dashboard of my car
When I’m in a traffic jam

He don’t care if I say damn

I can let all my curses roll
‘Cos Jesus’ plastic doesn’t hear

‘Cos he has a plastic ear
The man who invented plastic

Saved my soul

Plastic Jesus, original by Ed Rush & George Cromarty (extended lyrics by Ernie Marrs), covered by Billy Idol, Paul Newman, Jack Johnson, Flaming Lips, The Dead Kennedys, and 2 US Soldier in Iraq

Pick your favorite version! It's hard not to love Cool Hand Luke's, but Billy Idol's got me up & dancing and the 2 soldiers in Iraq left me drop-jawed. It's hard to choose just one! And please don't ask me how much time I spent on You Tube reviewing all of well as the ones I didn't want to help promote like Desire Dubounet's version. Doh!

I came across this website: Fishermen. The concept is kind of amazing--especially for me--being an ex-con of the Southern Baptist Megachurch movement in the late 80's. So, here you have this rock-climbing, Harley-riding, and not to mention WASPy-looking Jesus. Likely an ethnic reflection of the founder of this little company, right? Dude is black. So umm...who is his target market?

On the subject of plastic doll races, I was reminded of a short documentary my friend Pandora sent me about 2 years ago called A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis. I know I can overload my posts with links, but please watch this if you haven't already. As a little white girl, it never once occurred to me to pick out a black doll from the shelf. I was more of a stuffed animal kind of girl. However, I did inherit a cherished and ever-so-creepy collection of little dolls...not the kind you play with, but the kind that live most of their lives in plastic viewing cylinders. They looked kind of like this:

In fact, I had this same exact doll. It was my favorite. I also had a black "Aunt Jemima" looking doll. Might I have been surprised when I finally learned that all Native & African American didn't look this way? I don't remember. It's just interesting to think about how a simple plastic doll can say so much without ever saying a word.

Where am I going with this?

Christmas, dolls, toys, Jesus...hmmm.

How did Christmas culture in the US evolve or devolve?
Can I make a confession? Christmas just gets weirder and weirder for me. What used to be my favorite time of the year has now become a season in which I try to sail through as quickly and painlessly as possible. Here is a day that has been usurped and morphed so many times, that it can't tell its arse from it's elbow...

There was this god see, and earth people in Rome were like, "Oh Saturn, god of agriculture: Thanks for the crops. We lift our glasses to you and will turn our society upside down for a little while in honor of you." And so, for a month--people celebrated Saturnaila by eating, drinking, raising hell and playing Freaky Friday with the social order.

And then there was Mithra, god of the unconquerable Sun (who was born of a rock on December 25) and the Romans again were like, "For those born of a rock, we salute you." From the 4th century to the 8th century, there was bunch of back & forth about needing to settle on an official birthday for Jesus (because the not knowing was killing them and history needs dates like the addict needs the needle) and even though he was likely a spring or summer baby, they thought, "why not just ride the coattails of the already established generic god B-Day on December 25th and call it a night?"

And so it was...the quiet little baby Jesus was born in the middle of a bacchanalian celebration that practiced cutting trees down to put them inside & hang apples on them, beggars role-playing as king, slow-burning logs, mass slaughter of cattle, copious wine intake, and people getting wicked excited about putting the longest nights of winter behind them.

Eight centuries later, Oliver Cromwell and his posse of Puritans ride up like Scrooge on steroids and cancel Christmas in England in 1645. You would think that the Pilgrims (who left England 25 years prior) would be getting their Christmas on in the New World, but they were having none of it either. Their influence spread into Boston, MA where it was declared illegal (5 shilling fine) to celebrate Christmas from 1659-1681.

Almost two hundred years later in 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the US. Over the past 140 years, this day (for many people) has become a worrisome yet cathartic binge of decorating, listing, cooking, traveling, partying, driving, shopping, buying, wrapping, gifting and returning of superfluous stuff. And plastic is an integral part of this process.

Decorating your tree (which may be plastic) with plastic ornaments while listening to plastic holiday CD's. Lining a plastic-sided house with plastic lights and sticking an inflatable light-up polyester Santa kneeling next to a sleeping plastic baby Jesus in the yard. Making a list with your plastic pen & checking it twice. Taking photos with your plastic digital camera to send out on your plastic computer or print out on plastic paper to friends & family. Driving to the stores in your plastic lined vehicle. Parking on asphalt, plastic's cousin. Making sure you have portable plastic cards that represent money you don't have to buy many plastic things packaged in plastic that you can't afford, which may include an alarm clock on wheels, the Hillary Nut Cracker, or for those who like to simulate the feeling of being shot by a weapon, the Laser Tag Shocking Electronic Shock Game. Toting all of these plastic items back in plastic bags. Baking various items and packaging them in cute little plastic wrapped bags with plastic curly ribbons. Wrapping the presents with plastic coated wrapping paper & plastic tape. Plastic ladling a healthy cup of eggnog from a plastic punch bowl at a holiday party. Pictures with Santa in his acrylic throne and polyester suit. Wearing a plastic apron & gloves as you serve a cheap Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen with plastic utensils. And then there's Hanukkah...

I can just picture Saturn, Mithra, Jesus and all the rest watching this process, slapping their holy foreheads crying, "Oy veh! What in tarnation are these mortals doin'?" And like any good educator, I answer: "I don't know; that's a really good question. What do you think?"

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Week 16: Tripping the Lactide Fantastic

In the words of Huey Lewis & the News, I want a new drug. I believe I have found one in Polylactic Acid. PLA and other "green plastics" have been steady back-up singers for the plastics industry diva. In fact, they were around when the diva was still in diapers. So, don't call it a come back. They've been here for years.

Celluloid for photographic film and flammable billiard balls, whale baleen for corset ribs and umbrella handles, and soy for steering wheels and dashboards each had their 15 minutes of market fame until that silly old dinosaur juice was discovered as the source of a whole new kind of synthetic wonder drug. It goes without saying that I am relieved that we're using synthetic polymers for umbrella handles and billiard balls rather than sacrificing whales & elephants for such luxuries. However, I've still got this itch that I can't scratch. Asking first, "How can we maintain the products & services with new materials & methods?" is easier than addressing the deeper questions of "How are these products & services being recirculated into natural cycles?" or (gasp), "How can we phase these products & services out of our lives completely?"

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Boloco; this great little Burrito chain that is part of the Green Restaurant Association. I usually just get a burrito to go, but I had a lunch meeting AND I forgot my trusty mason jar of water. Parched, I decided to suck it up and get a plastic cup of root beer. I finished my meeting and stuffed the empty cup into my bag. After lamenting that the ephemeral root beer fix wasn't worth the cup, my friend gleefully informed me that the cup was made from corn. I inhaled with excitement and experienced what I call the bioplastic high. The mindless, numbing satisfaction of tossing my trash and then running free, empty-handed & headed through my guiltless imaginary corn field.

My name is Sunnye, and I'm a corn-a-holic. It's been 2 hours since my last drink.

The funny thing about alternatives is that sometimes, that's all they are. And while the practice of diversifying the way we think about and do things is an honorable path, I wonder if some alternatives to the traditional begin to resemble sidewalks in the suburbs...

And then there's the politics sandwiched between each and every one of these simplified steps...

In a 2006 story in Smithsonian Magazine (yet another fantastic piece by Elizabeth Royte), PLA is crafted into a double-edged sword. It may use less energy to produce than something like PET, but what is it really doing to address our to-go-cup addiction?

The Corn is my Shepherd; I shall not want...any less than I did when I used regular plastic.

I know...I'm a real stick in the mud, but I'm sincerely struggling with the long term intention of bioplastics. I ain't sayin' they're bad, but I ain't sayin' they're good either. I am officially on the fence and that's all I have to say about that...for now.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Week 15: I'm not dead yet.

Many of you may be surprised to know...that I am not yet dead. I manage to survive (quite well, in fact) despite sharing my space with my waste AND greatly reducing (or forgoing entirely) my use of coffee lids, plastic bags, bottles, disposable feminine products, and so may other things I thought I might wither up and die without. Or, at the very least totally inconvenience my established lifestyle.

But Lo! I am still here...even healthy enough to run half naked through the streets of Boston in the annual Santa Speedo Run. Team Numbass ran in an 18 degree windchill, and you know something? None of us died. And Nope, I'm note the cute one. I'm the pensive-looking viking...

I even turned down the free plastic bag from Puma to hold my clothes, and I STILL didn't die. Incredible...might there be some things I can live, and dare I say, be HAPPY without? It got me thinking about the spectrum of inconvenience...running in the cold causes one to think about these things.

So, what do you consider an inconvenience?
  • Is it the wind blowing hair in your face as you're crossing the street?
  • Is it an out-of-order ATM?
  • Is it losing power for a week after an ice storm or hurricane?
  • Is it not having electricity at all?
  • Is it having wet firewood?
  • Is it having to fix dinner for yourself when you're tired?
  • Is it not having quite enough food for to feed your family?
  • Is it missing the bus?
  • Is it losing your job (or needing one in the first place)?
  • Is it losing your keys? Dropping your keys? Needing to lock things up in the first place?
  • Is it your child waking up too early or going to sleep too late?
  • Is it having to pee in the woods (or not being able to?)
  • Is it having too much stuff (or not enough)?
  • Is it debt?
  • Is it family holidays (or lack thereof)?
  • Is it people?
  • Is it sharing the road with drivers? pedestrians? cyclists?
  • Is it sharing the planet with other animals?
  • Is it sleeping, walking, crying, or coughing?
  • Is it the urge to change, but having no clue how to enact it?
  • Is it TV, cell phone, computer, or lack thereof?
  • Is it having to dodge someone throwing a shoe at your face? Is it having bad aim?
  • Is it the language barrier? The cultural barrier?
  • Is it sharing a seat with someone on the train?
  • Is it a dull knife, a bad hair day, or having to share your bath with mosquito larvae?
  • Is it elephants trampling through your garden?
  • Is it stepping in poop or even having to smell it? Is it being around people who think that theirs doesn't stink?
  • Is it a broken copy machine?
  • Is it child support? Children in general?
  • Is it dreams, ideas, or lack thereof?
  • Is it development or red tape?
  • Is it a flood, drought, heat wave, blizzard, or earthquake?
  • Is it an endangered species?
  • Is it chipping a nail or biting your tongue?

In my 15th week, I've just realized that my list of "inconveniences" is evolving:
  • not being charged $5 for every plastic bag I receive with my purchase.
  • not being able to bring in my empty shampoo bottle for a discounted refill at most supermarkets
  • not receiving a "return-packaging-to-manufacturer" envelope with all the products I buy.
  • being entirely reliant on e-mail, internet, and phone communication in order to do my job well
  • having to reconfirm with employees at various stores that "no, thank you" I do not need a plastic bag...if I was able to carry everything to the register, I imagine that truth will hold as I walk out the door, right?
  • being grouped in with the millions of other straw-abiding citizens
  • having adapted to WAY too many conveniences via plastic
  • the line of thinking that I need to fill my life with stuff rather than relationships and experiences and still believing that relationships and experiences need to have a lot of stuff in order to function properly
  • having trash barrels everywhere
These are just a few...

At my grandpa's funeral, I met a friend of my mom's for the first time...a wonderful woman who I felt like I'd known for years. She recalled a humorous story about ringing my grandparents doorbell (my mom was staying there) at 1:00 in the morning after a "libatious" high school reunion. The two friends who accompanied her whispered, "Are you sure we should be doing this? We're going to wake them up!" She pursed her lips and furrowed her brow and said exclaimed (in an animated & exasperated southern accent), "Nobody's gonna die!"

I have applied this wisdom many times since. So, next time you think about buying something (plastic or other)...ask yourself..."Am I gonna die if I don't buy this?" If that approach is too extreme for you, you can tone it down a notch by asking..."Is this going to bring me happiness?" or "How is this going to improve mine or my family's health or appreciation for life?"

Just try it...

Often, I just turn on my robot switch when I enter the grocery. Now I realize that I can't even mindlessly order a glass of water at a restaurant or I get a free straw for my new straw house that I am slowly building in my guest room.

Wake up & abre los ojos. If you are reading this, it probably means that you're not dead either.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Week 14: PC (#7)

Before I begin the end of this 7-step journey, I need to confess something. I'm obsessed with the Feedjit widget on my blog. I look at it religiously and I found something very strange. I recently finished reading The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert (who I am completely enchanted with--as well as Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live--I LOVE TALENTED STRONG WOMEN!!) I had never heard of Boone, North Carolina until I read about Eustace Conway and Turtle Island. This is a man who I'm pretty sure could lovingly kick my rear end into next Tuesday, but again...I digress AND recommend reading this book.

ANYWAY--I saw that there was a hit on the FEEDJIT map from Boone! I have no idea if the reader is connected to Turtle Island, barn kitties, Peter Rabbit or the fine art of dumpster diving, but CHEERS to Boone, NC reader, whoever you may be!

Polycarbonate & Co. #7, AKA--"and all that other plastic crap" and "other". Have you ever filled out a questionnaire that asks about your ethnicity? Many say "Caucasian, Native American, Hispanic, Asian American, African American, Pacific Islander..." Some of the older questionnaires (which always make me laugh) boil it down to "white, non-white, or other." I like checking "other" because who really knows, right? So, just like number 7, I'm a mutt. Besides serving as the grey "coating" inside pet & people food cans, polycarbonate has been more popularly linked with the ubiquitous Nalgene (and many baby) bottles. Many studies link polycarbonate (and by default ALL #7's) to BPA (bispehenol-A), which has caused a big scare because of BPA's knack for royally messing with your endocrine system. I took the following exerpt from National Geographic's Green Guide:

In 2003, a study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), reproduced the same results as the earlier studies when new bottles were tested. However, after repeated washings and scrubbings, the levels of BPA leaching from the bottles increased significantly. The study concludes, "The increased migration levels may be due to polymer degradation."

During the same year, two more studies were published in EHP, which came about after researchers traced BPA in lab mice to the PC cages in which the mice were housed. These studies share several of the same conclusions: 1) Polycarbonate exposed to harsh detergent is prone to leaching; 2) The older the polycarbonate, the more it leaches; 3) High temperatures cause higher rates of leaching. One study found that polycarbonate will leach into water at room temperature. Of even greater concern, the laboratory plastics studies were initiated by sudden abnormalities in mice egg cells after polycarbonate animal cages were mistakenly washed with the wrong detergent.

According to NY Times article, for the #7's that contain it, BPA gives a hard plastic feel (like the traditional Nalgene or a water filtering pitcher) and that most of our exposure to BPA comes from the canned foods we eat. I wonder if the ever-increasing rate of dog & cat cancer has anything to do with canned foods.

A co-worker and I had kitchen duty last Friday and she pointed out the bottom of a 1 gallon Arizona Iced tea bottle. Not only did it say #7, but #5 as well. She consulted me on the matter and given my recently acquired plastintuitiveness, I thoughtfully replied: "Hmm, that's weird. I have no idea what that means."

As beysn commented in an earlier post, #7 not only includes all the other plastics, but bioplastics as well (corn, potato, sugar-based alternatives to conventional plastics).

I've also seen the universal recycling symbol with no number inside the arrows and I have to wonder if Gary Anderson intended his little design to cause such widespread confusion. You see, Gary won a contest sponsored by the Container Corporation of America in 1970, which was later swallowed by Smurfit-Stone. I swear I wasn't looking for this, but here's a little controversy about Smurfit-Stone: sweatshop strike in Chicago. What I was really looking for was this:

Papa Smurf says: JUST SMURF IT!

What is funny is that CCA established this design contest because of the growing public concern about recycling, wastefulness, etc. and they wanted to try and establish a universal symbol to communicate recycled content & recyclability of a material. I'm sure public relations were at play here, but also an earnest effort in the beginning to do some good. So, I smurfed around on Smurfit's website and found lots of smurfy photos of children holding recycling bins and happy safety-goggled workers looking pensively at a sheet of corrugated cardboard. They recycle a smurf-load of paper (I believe about 700 million tons a year). So, I'm thinking, "Please tell me that the company credited with the global push of the recycling number system actually recycle all those plastic numbers..."


They only recycle #1, #2, #4. So, this begs my ongoing question, "How did we come to trust so unquestioningly in this 40 year-old number system and why do we continue to do so?" So, after a little bit of thought, I want to boycott the recycling symbol number system. I know. You probably want me to smurf off at this point, but here are the questions I have asked myself (and my answers) that have led me to this state of discomfort:

1) How often do you look for a recycling number before tossing the object into the garbage or into the recycle bin? (80% of the time, I think)

2) When you do look for the recycling symbol, what is your first feeling for each number?
  • #1 = "OK, I can buy's the most recyclable."
  • #2 = "I can buy this too, because it's kind of like #1."
  • #3 = "Crap. What does 3 stand for again? I feel like it's not good."
  • #4 = "Hmm, what is #4 again? Oh right, LDPE. Umm, I don't feel as solid on my recycle info for this one."
  • #5 = (Homer Simpson blank stare.),
  • #6 = Polystrene. I hate that stuff. I'm not buying it if I have other choices."
  • #7 = "No man's land--Frankenstein, Chimera plastic nonsense making the number seven look not-so-lucky."
3) How often do you factor in the plastic number at the point of purchase? (almost never)

4) Do the recycling numbers enable you to buy & use more plastic since you loosely believe that it can be thrown into the recycling bin and therefore recycled? (Yes.)

5) Have you ever been to a recycling facility? (Yes)

6) Do you know where your recycling bin contents go after it leaves your curb? (No.)

7) Do you trust/know that it is not co-mingled with your trash? (No.)

8) How does the plastic recycling number system help reduce plastic consumption? (I think the system may serve to foster awareness about the different types of plastics, but until they move from a number system to a life cycle paragraph on the ingredients, resources, and statistics on plastics recycling feasibility ON EVERY plastic product, they're just numbers...a hopeful idea from the 1970's turned crusty two-dimensional gimmick.)

SO...what? Have I gone through this process only to say "bah humbug" to recycling? To be honest...I don't know. What I do know is that I continue to put other things in my recycling bin, faithfully put it out on the curb every other Thursday, and trust that my offering will appease the recycling gods and cushion the blow of my own consumption habits. Just like the disappearing cookies and carrots left for Santa & his reindeer, my empty recycling bin is there for me when I get home. I hook it with the ends of my fingers, nestle it back in a nook in the kitchen, and pray that I might have the same bounty of empty containers to offer again in 14 days...