In Mike Nichol's classic 1967 film The Graduate Benjamin Braddock was a recent graduate being feted at a party thrown by his parents. A friend of his father offered a single word of advice: "Plastics".
When screenwriter Buck Henry wrote these words, he was offering a metaphor for the shallow, venal future that Ben could look forward to as he worked his way through the traditional middle class career ladder that stretched out before him.
If this movie was remade in 2009, the single word of advice might have a very different and more literal meaning. Our society is overwhelmed with plastic. And our future is not defined by a clever metaphor, but by the reality that the billions of tons of plastic generated by our consumer culture may be our undoing.
Think about city dogs. Most of our population lives in urban centers. Many of the city dwellers have dogs. They take their dogs for a walk a couple of times a day. Most cities have an ordinance that requires dog owners to clean up their animals waste. Most dog owners carry a plastic bag with them to scoop up their dog's daily production of feces. The dog feces is carefully encased in a plastic bag and thrown into the trash. The small amount of organic material that the dog produces has now been accorded the status of King Tut. It will be preserved in perpetuity in a non-biodegradable vessel that will spend centuries in a land fill or will eventually be washed out to sea where a turtle or a dolphin or another form of sea life can ingest it and die. Millions of plastic bags every day, for years. The scale of this completely ridiculous practice is astounding.
Millions of times every day, someone buys a soft drink at a fast food restaurant. Or they stop at a convenience store for a gigantic soft drink. Or they order iced tea in a restaurant. In all of these instances and millions more every day, a plastic drinking straw is used for a few minutes and then sent to a landfill. Many of them make their way into our water systems, both natural and human engineered. Millions upon millions of straws every day. Millions of barrels of oil devoted to their manufacture. And the presence of plastic straws in the waste stream is staggering.
In both examples we are talking about a lavish use of a limited resource used and discarded in the most casual way with devastating effects on the environment. But both of these things, and thousands of other daily uses of plastic, are as ordinary as getting a glass of water or kissing your children goodnight. And unlike drinking water or love for children, they are 100 percent unnecessary. Recycled paper drinking straws would be a simple solution if only fast food restaurants and convenience stores created the market for them. Bans on plastic bags such as the one adopted in San Francisco, would force dog owners to find some other way of dealing with waste. The market for compostable doggie waste bags would take off.
As a society we are devoted to encapsulating every can of trash in plastic. We use and discard plastic as if it were the most benign and infinitely available substance on earth. The casual and pervasive disregard of the consequences of plastics in our waste stream is one of the most under reported tragedies of the degradation of our commons. It will be a huge societal effort to change this. The cessation of wanton waste of plastics starts with you. Just say no to choking sea turtles and growing the Pacific gyre garbage island. Think of the billions of ways we discharge plastic into our waste stream every day and take the personal responsibility to stop. Then take responsibility for your community's well being and help to pass ordinances that ban wasteful, idiotic uses of plastic.
Your dog will still be able to poop. You just won't be able to create little fecal sarcophagi for your great grandchildren to deal with.