Once we understood the journey from grocery store to disposal, it was difficult for us to continue to shop in the manner that we did before. We notice the high amounts of plastic packaging and feel disturbed, as we understand the impact that it has. We understand where that substance ends up and how it is a factor in our plunge into the apocalypse, so why would we want to contribute to that?
Due to the fact that most options at grocery stores are in some kind of single-use container, we have completely changed our grocery shopping habits. As we have mentioned in a previous post, we choose to exclusively purchase produce and items from the bulk section, limiting our waste production. However, this can be difficult when things we have come accustomed to expect from a trip to the grocery store – pasta sauce, milk, bread, granola bars – are all wrapped in some material that’s oftentimes not reusable and definitely not recyclable.
Only roughly 9% of the world’s plastic is actually being recycled. This means that even when your plastic product has that lovely triangle indicating that it is recyclable, the chances of that hummus container of yours actually getting recycled are slim to none.
The reasoning for this grotesque reality lies in a couple of factors. Most importantly, China is no longer buying American recycling. For decades, the United States was sending the bulk of their recycling to China – tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into marketable items and new plastic products. However, last year China restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper and most plastics. This has caused the majority of plastics to be redirected to landfills; contributing to pollution, never to be used again.
Despite this end of recycling, the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. This shouldn’t be surprising, Americans have had no incentive to consume less. It’s inexpensive to buy products, and it’s even cheaper to throw them away at the end of their short lives, with no consequences. But the costs of all this garbage are growing.
Domestic recycling companies have no interest in attempting to give used plastic another life because Americans are terrible at recycling. About 25 percent of what ends up in those blue recycling bins is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association.
For decades, Americans have been throwing away whatever they wanted, however they wanted – greasy pizza boxes and ketchup bottles and dirty yogurt containers – into the recycling bin, oblivious to where it went. They were just content with the fact they were recycling and that their waste production was no longer their concern. In actuality, their waste went to China, where low-paid workers sorted through it and cleaned it up. Now, that’s no longer an option. Plastic that is not cleaned properly now ends up in landfills and our oceans.
Plastic isn’t just a problem when it shows up in our oceans, or on the ground in our community. Plastic pollutes, thus contributes to climate change, at every stage of its life. Plastic production represents a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry. Plastic is made from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and even coal. This means that all of the problems of fossil fuel extraction and transportation – from oil spills to groundwater pollution – come along for the ride.
During the production stage of plastic, converting these fossil fuels into plastic requires large chemical processing plants that emit a variety of harmful pollutants into the air. These plants are often located in low-income communities, which lack the resources and political capital to fight back. These communities face higher rates of disease as a result of their exposure to pollutants from nearby plants.
Due to neoliberal ideology, we have been led to believe that plastic pollution is the product of careless litterbugs, and that we all have an individual choice in the matter. However, this is largely a problem of corporations. Despite the lack of established systems to manage plastic waste, multinational corporations like Nestlé, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson continue to dump huge volumes of low-value plastic into developing countries in the global south, with an understanding of its impact. A hundred corporations are to blame for 71% of global emissions, so there is little to do on an individual level to fight this systemic issue.
However, if you are anything like us, continuing to buy plastic products is close to impossible with this knowledge of how the current system operates. So, while our individual actions do not solve the plastic problem, we do not want to contribute to this corrupt system.
In order to reduce our role in plastic waste production, we are making our own food items rather than buying them. Instead of pre-made pasta sauce in a jar, we buy whole tomatoes (from our local farmer’s market!) and create our own sauce. Our alternative to granola bars are no-bake energy balls that are packed with oats, chia seeds, honey, and peanut butter, and are incredibly easy to make! We also make our own oat milk which is insanely easy and incredibly affordable.
It is definitely a shift in the normal consumer model, buying items that are not in any packaging, essentially going brandless, and making all products on your own. It is liberating to know every ingredient in the food you are eating and being able to customize it to fit your needs.
There are certain adjustments that must be made, but they are completely doable. For example, it can be wasteful to make a whole jar of pasta sauce for one person if it is made of natural ingredients and can go bad quickly. An easy solution is making the sauce while making the meal all together, and what’s better than fresh pasta sauce?
Another great thing you can do is get involved with activist groups in your community. You may not be able to make an impact on an individual level, but organizing within your community has the potential to make change. Check to see if there is a Sunrise Movement chapter in your city, or an Extinction Rebellion group, and get involved! If there are no chapters nearby, start one!