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Guest Blog:The Institution of Plastic: We need a cultural reformation, not just clean-up

This Blog is from the Plastic Pollution Coalition to coincide with the UN Oceans Conference

Ocean, Culture, Environment
We were heartened to see Margaret Atwood’s column in The Guardian, detailing the ever-increasing perils we are facing from our worldwide dependence on single-use plastic. We are polluting our own food supply by dumping plastics into the environment at an alarming rate.
We are damaging our own health and our children’s development by taking into our bodies the chemicals leaching from single-use plastic packaging of our food and drinks. Ms. Atwood advocates for reformation of the somewhat nebulous “institution” of plastics, with which we consummately agree: the reverence we’ve built toward this expensive, destructive material might very well be our undoing as a global society.
We undoubtedly must find a way to collect, clean, and recycle the plastics we’ve already made and dumped worldwide. But plastics are only one cog in a larger system, a single-use culture reliant on the petrochemical and forest industries for its feed supply.
But the solution to this scourge is not simply the small-scale cleanup projects or non-plastic replacements cited by Ms. Atwood. We undoubtedly must find a way to collect, clean, and recycle the plastics we’ve already made and dumped worldwide. But plastics are only one cog in a larger system, a single-use culture reliant on the petrochemical and forest industries for its feed supply.
In the 1950s, when the world was first moving beyond Bakelite and into the cult of plastic, advertisements encouraged people to change their whole way of life. Gone were the days of wartime rations and careful reuse of all household materials. Instead, Life Magazine encouraged people to embrace “Throwaway Living.” No more housewives washing dishes for minutes on end after meals! No longer did you have to worry about packing up your picnic set and cleaning it all once you got home! Like Betty Draper in Mad Men, you could just toss it off the blanket and forget about it. Like many religions, plastics started with a miracle: the miracle of time saved.
A man, woman and child toss "disposable" items into the air, 1955.
Peter Stackpole—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Rarely is a new creed embraced as quickly or as thoroughly. In just two generations, few people can now get through even one day without offering a sacrifice to the plastic gods. But little do we realize that the sacrifice is our own health, and the gods are not mythical beings: they’re petrochemical and plastics industry CEOs, profiting off our ready acceptance of the single-use dogma.
Systemic solutions for this systemic problem are at hand. Not only do we need to clean up the plastic pollution that already exists in our landfills and oceans; we must also form a new kind of reverence. The reformation that Ms. Atwood so earnestly calls for must redefine our concept of convenience. We must work with governments, businesses, and institutions to create systems for reuse and redesign, to change policy and practice to protect our own health and our communities, away from single-use.
Until we reform our society’s devotion to worshipping at the altar of convenience above all else, we risk continuing to be overwhelmed by the onslaught of garbage.
As part of a growing global movement, communities across the world are acting collectively to demand better systems and to pass laws limiting single-use plastic and other materials. The urgent work of Plastic Pollution Coalition and our partners in this movement is to uplift these local efforts and to scale them, to remove the individual consumer burden of this exponential global problem. What we need to stop plastic pollution is cultural reformation, not just clean up. We need a different kind of miracle.


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