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Sue Bruns: Post-Environmental Day thoughts about plastics

I’ve been thinking a lot about plastics lately.  

Remember the advice given to young Benjamin in The Graduate by a friend of his father?  

“Plastics!” says Mr. McGuire to Ben. “There’s a great future in plastics.”  

Back in 1967, when the movie was released, plastics were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today.  Most soft drink machines still dispensed glass-bottled soda; meat from the market was wrapped in white butcher paper and labeled with a red marker; cars had chrome bumpers that could rust!

Then plastics took off, providing simple, light-weight solutions and giving us things like clear plastic bottles (lighter than glass and not likely to shatter when dropped) with plastic screw-off caps. (Throw out those bottle openers!)  In grocery stores, pork chops, steaks, or chicken parts were arranged on Styrofoam  trays (often pink or yellow, to make the cuts of meat look their freshest) and covered with plastic shrink wrap.

Now, almost everywhere you look, there’s plastic, and not just a little plastic. Take inventory in your car, in your home, at your office and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s hard to find much of anything that isn’t plastic.  We appreciate its convenience, versatility, resilience.  You can’t kill plastic, and that’s a problem. When we’re done with our plastic, maybe 45% of it is recycled, but 25-30% of the space in our landfills is filled by plastics.

My particular dislike right now is Styrofoam, the miracle plastic and air product that is polluting our earth and oceans and negatively affecting our health. Styrofoam is actually the brand name of a polystyrene plastic foam – 5% plastic and 95% air, so it’s lightweight and versatile.  It’s used for everything from drinking cups to insulation, but very little Styrofoam is recycled.

I don’t like drinking out of Styrofoam cups, eating off Styrofoam plates, taking carry-out meals home in Styrofoam hinged boxes.  I hate the way Styrofoam packaging for electronic devices and other breakable items takes up about 50% of the space inside the packaging box.  You unpack your new computer or stereo from a box twice the size of the object and are left with Styrofoam forms that are larger than the item you’ve unpacked.  What do you do with them?  

And don’t even get me started on those annoying little Styrofoam packaging peanuts!

Recycling Styrofoam is cumbersome and costly, and it doesn’t result in desirable products.  Businesses and people who buy Styrofoam want the clean, untainted stuff.

As a result, around the world, Styrofoam is filling landfills and blowing across open spaces like new-age tumbleweeds.  It is swirling in ocean vortexes with other flotsam and jetsam, often looking like something edible to unsuspecting ocean creatures who eat it and die. (It either chokes them or clogs up their digestive systems. Check this link: .)  Large and small pieces of Styrofoam are washing up on beaches all over the world.  It is now considered to be the most prevalent part of marine debris.

And the thing is, Styrofoam is forever.  Styrofoam never breaks down; it is not biodegradable.  (Well, some reports estimate it might break down in about 500 years, but we haven’t had Styrofoam long enough to know.)

What isn’t blowing around the world or swirling around the ocean or filling up the landfills is sometimes burned, releasing nasty poisonous gases with 57 different chemical byproducts into the atmosphere.

It’s time to say goodbye to Styrofoam.

Some cities, counties, and even countries have already banned Styrofoam. Great substitutes are being produced using renewable resources like recycled paper or bamboo, corn or other plant matter.

Businesses are getting rid of plastic and Styrofoam containers.  Many fast food restaurants switched to biodegradable or recyclable paper containers several years ago. The mushrooms I buy at local grocery stores now come in recycled and recyclable trays instead of the old blue plastic or Styrofoam ones.  (Hurrah!)  

But too many places still rely on Styrofoam. Recently we purchased a bucket of chicken from KFC.  I was happy to see that the bucket was labeled with a logo and the words “Sustainable Forestry Initiative.”  A note on the bucket said, “We are as committed to the environment as we are to our food and to our customers,” which sounded nice, until I saw the same slogan printed on the Styrofoam cups with the clear plastic lids that held our cole slaw, potatoes, and gravy.  Thanks for the bucket, KFC, but hey, let’s go the distance!

I’ve decided my own little attempt to clean up the world will include avoiding businesses that create exorbitant waste or use environmentally unhealthy packaging that is not biodegradable. That includes not taking home “doggie bags” that are hinged Styrofoam boxes.  (By the way, don’t re-heat your food in Styrofoam.  Doing so can cause harmful chemicals to leach from the container into your food.)

When I stop at a coffee shop, I’m bringing my own travel mug or requesting a ceramic mug to drink from. I’ve also decided to go out of my way to thank businesses that are making attempts to be environmentally conscientious.

Care to join me?  Maybe we can help our world to start healing for our children and grandchildren.