When the cafe worker offered me plastic cutlery with my to-go salad, I declined, thinking of the bamboo fork, spoon and knife in my backpack. Ditto for the straw with my iced tea; the travel set came with a glass one. I felt some measure of pride to be able to reduce my waste even while away from home.
My humility returned when I realized I’d have to trash the plastic container the salad came in. I didn’t have time to clean it in the train station bathroom before departing, and the oily residue could contaminate the whole bin. Remembering all the reports that I’d read about how little material from recycling bins actually gets recycled anyway, I pitched the container with a sigh.
Plastics are everywhere. Recently it seems like depressing news about plastics is everywhere, too.
According to The Christian Science Monitor, in the past few generations we’ve done an enormous amount of damage with plastics: “Since the 1950s, humanity has generated some 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste. Just 9 percent of that waste has been recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and the remaining 79 percent ended up in landfills or as litter.”
That’s damage to the Earth and its waterways — oceans and seas, as well as the Great Lakes closer to home, are being clogged with plastic, I read in the Canadian United Church Observer. That’s also damage to our bodies, as drinking water for the city where I live and others is contaminated with microplastics.
The Observer’s issue on plastics was both disheartening and hopeful: disheartening because of the enormity of the problem and hopeful because it gave readers the information we need to start making different decisions.
An article on the different kinds of plastics detailed which can be safely reused. I read this at the gym, drinking water out of a No. 1 PETE bottle I had refilled a dozen times, thinking myself virtuous for doing so. It turns out that while perhaps I can pat myself on the back for keeping that bottle out of the waste stream, I was potentially allowing plastic threads into my tissues.
The fix was easy — I recycled that bottle and got a glass one to reuse — as are some of the other strategies the Observer offers for reducing plastic use. Some I hadn’t known about, such as avoiding polyester fleece clothes and others made of synthetic fibers. There are also reminders for changing my household’s habits in ways I knew about but frankly haven’t made time for, such as making my own cleaning products rather than buying them in plastic containers.
The more I read, the more I felt both empowered and overwhelmed. And plastics are just one facet of the current environmental crisis.
Roy Scranton, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, writes in a New York Times commentary that we all have to choose “whether we are willing to commit to living ethically in a broken world, a world in which human beings are dependent for collective survival on a kind of ecological grace. . . . Living ethically means understanding that our actions have consequences [and] taking responsibility for how those consequences ripple out across the web of life. . . . Living ethically means limiting our desires, respecting the deep interdependence of all things in nature and honoring the fact that our existence on this planet is a gift.”
Living ethically in a broken world is part of discipleship, a commitment we make in our baptismal vows. We may be overwhelmed and disheartened sometimes in that effort, but thank God we don’t have to do it alone.
Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.