Single use society

February 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

I ran into this video on Facebook this weekend and it reminded me of just how mad plastic grocery bags make me. Three years ago, I started working on a statewide campaign to bag plastic bags in California – there were 12 municipalities with city or county bans. Since then, we lost two statewide bag ban votes, the chemical industry lobby almost successfully got language into high school textbooks saying that plastic bags were good for the environment, and we banned bags in 62 cities and counties in the state.  That’s 25% of the entire state of California, or 9.5 million people who will soon be living plastic bag free.

MIDWAY – Plastic Beach from Midway on Vimeo.

One of the strangest things about being a modern animal is the rise of our single-use society. A society where somehow, spending 1,100 to 2,000 times more in energy to bottle, label, and transport a plastic bottle of water compared to tap water1 can cost a consumer just one dollar. Where making and disposing of thousands of single use plastic spoons is more cost efficient for a business than washing metal ones. Where putting a Snickers bar in a single-use plastic bag for free is standard practice for a grocery store.

This failed economy where neither the producer or the consumer pays for the long-term impact of a product on society has resulted in everything from the Great Pacific Garbage patch, to the half a million tons of toxic ash that the little state of Connecticut generates every year through trash incineration2.

Obviously banning single use plastic bags isn’t enough. Even when I was working on this campaign, the scale of the impact of our single use society would often escape me. It wasn’t until I went to Kauai and found myself on an empty beach, beautiful other than that it was covered in plastic, that I internalized just how vast the problem we’d created was.

plastic beach kauai

Are those tiny granules sand or plastic?

plastic beach kauai 2

pack your trash kauai

Based on the painted on signs like the one above, or messages to “pack your trash” etched into logs on the beach all over the island, it was clear that the local impact of the North Pacific Gyre was being felt. Not surprisingly, every Hawaiian island has already banned single-use plastic grocery bags.

Scenes like that are especially hard to stomach now that I’m living in New Brunswick – my first impression of the city last April when I visited was “this is the dirtiest city that isn’t in the third world that I’ve ever seen.” Case in point, this is a photo I took walking to work this morning:

2013-02-18 09.00.50

The good, and maybe the annoying, news,is we have the solutions. New Brunswick’s problem is that the city is lazy – it doesn’t provide standard waste bins or regular enough recycling pick up. The simplicity of the solution is directly correlated with how frustrated I am that it’s not being applied. Aren’t the wind tunnels and dilapidated buildings enough? Do we have to add trash to the daily flaura and fauna?

From producer pays programs like the bottle bill to pay as you throw curbside trash pick-up and city wide compost programs, some cities have already achieved 80-90% waste diversion. San Francisco is at a 78% diversion rate. The problem of single-use society is not rocket science, it’s not even high school calculus, but if we want to continue to enjoy the great outdoors (as amateurs or otherwise), it’s a problem we need to tackle with simple and smart policy.

1. Energy Implications of Bottled Water, Gleik and Cooley.



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