A TV ad from the mid-1960s is stamped in my memory bank. A woman peeks coyly around the shower curtain and asks her husband for the shampoo. “Here,” he says, throwing the bottle at her head, and as it ricochets around the tub, she exclaims: “Hey! It didn’t break!” This was the dawning of a new era in plastics and sub-lethal marital violence.
It sticks in my head because it marks the time before which we managed to muddle through life without plastic. It’s almost inconceivable now. Plastic, a petroleum product, is ubiquitous and an object lesson in ecology, or the interconnectedness of things. Everything affects everything else. A plastic butterfly barrette snapping open in Omaha leads to a gyre of submerged garbage swirling around in the Pacific. The stuff never goes away, but it does bust up into pieces so small (“nurdles”) they are now being ingested by plankton. We don’t know just what that will mean for the food chain, but odds are we’re not going to like it.
Here in Portland, our mayor, Sam Adams, is looking to ban single-use plastic bags from stores. Some people are incensed. “He’s just trying to look green,” says one, and that’s a valid worry. It sets a nasty precedent. What if the President pulled out of Afghanistan just to look peaceful? What if Sarah Palin corked her cakehole just to look intelligent? Where would we be then?
Other dissenters point out that the plastic bags have handles and are much easier to carry, especially for the disabled and elderly. Perhaps we are being a little too hasty in abandoning our present system before we have developed the technology to make reusable cloth bags with handles.
But the most compelling case of all in favor of plastic bags is their reuse in the field of dog poop removal. My friend Margie not only bags up the voluminous output of two Labrador retrievers every day on her walks but then carries it in her coat pockets. “It keeps my hands warm,” she explains, another consequence unforeseen by me. I had to think back. What did we do before we scooped dog poop into plastic bags?
We didn’t scoop dog poop into anything. Our dog pooped in the neighbor’s yard and their dog pooped in ours. Kids revved up their immune systems by rolling around in quantities of it, and everybody watched their step. It’s not feasible in the cell phone age.
So what’s it going to be, people? Dog poop, or plastic inhalers for the kids? Cold hands, or a continent-sized wad of garbage in a part of the ocean nobody ever visits anyway? The planet, or Lunchables? Give it another few decades of thought, and be strong. We’ll never know if we can live without plankton until we give it a shot.