Creating waste is not a new human activity. What anthropologists know of our prehistoric relatives comes in no small part from examining what was thrown into middens, or domestic trash heaps. The myth that early humans were perfectly in tune with nature is easily disputed by the fact that thousands of years later, piles of refuse still litter the planet, waiting for discovery by anyone with a nose for bits of whittled bone or broken crockery
Still, there seems to be a qualitative difference between, say, charcoal and clam shells from our past, versus the trillions of tons of plastic waste that we have strewn around the planet in just the last six decades.
Whether it’s Mumbai, Mexico City or Manila Bay, there are almost certainly more hunter/gatherers living in the world’s municipal dumps than there are in the pristine wilderness.
No microbes know what to do with polypropelene and its ilk. A significant percentage of the oceans are now filled with plankton-sized plastic bits, which fill up the stomachs of sea creatures, and starve them. The straw that breaks the camel’s back, it seems, will be from a big gulp. Or maybe death by nurdles.
So, as I make my way through my American day, what can be my response to this? I’ve already done the easy stuff: No plastic utensils, No plastic water bottles. I recycle, reuse, reduce, but each day inevitably involves the disposal of plastic bits too small or insignificant to have received the recycle symbol.
- Return Envelope Windows
- Bottle Tops
- Cap Wraps
- Packing Foam
- Organic Produce Stickers
- Plastic Sheeting on yogurt and tofu containers
My grandparents used to burn or bury what they couldn’t repurpose. I remember charred remains of glass, burlap, tin and waxed paper, suitable to add to compost and throw on the flowerbeds. Burning is no solution for plastics.
Of course, scientists are working on possible mitigation techniques, including microbes that eat plastic. And lots of companies are touting packaging materials that may or may not be biodegradable.
I’m not really willing to wait and hope that corporate innovation can solve the problem it caused. But I’m not sure of the alternatives. It seems we’ve inheirited a long history of making trash. In fact, we’re no longer confining our filth to the surface of the planet. We are seriously mucking up space in earth’s orbit. The recent collision of US and Russian satellites supposedly had a chance of creating a chain reaction of collisions, resulting in a cloud of space debris that would have closed off space travel for decades. Perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing, at least until we learn to clean up after ourselves.