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The Plastics Revolution

I got to thinking about plastic and  when it started to inundate the world, to the point that oceans and beaches are being clogged with bags and containers, our landfills are becoming toxic dumps and we’re looking at ways to get rid of these beasts that have a relatively long half-life.

Plastic is not found naturally in nature. Trees and even papery aspects of them in certain barks or wasp and hornet nests are. Glass in the form of a volcanic residue such as obsidian is found in nature. Sand, the basis for glass of course is. Gum and shellac were early natural plastics. Next came the chemically modified plastics starting with celluloid, developed in 1855 and was used as an ivory replacement and in photographic and movie film. But it was highly flammable. Collagen and rubber were a few of these. Later came the fully synthetic, not found anywhere in nature, plastics such as epoxy and bakelite.

I’m trying to remember the plastics of my childhood. I vaguely recall milk in glass bottles, and later waxed paper cartons. There were no plastic jugs for milk but there were for making Koolaid and other nutritious drinks like Tang. I think cottage cheese and the like might have come in waxed cardboard containers but I really don’t remember. There were the melamine dishes, often used for camping and very similar in denseness to the bakelite of old. I have one bakelite button that is put on like a buttoniere and has a screw back. I think it’s from the 30s.

There were of course plastic bags for things like bread but grocery bags were still paper. I can’t think of what we used for a garbage bag. I think it was paper and then tossed into the large green Glad bags. Saran wrap and other food wraps were around and even Ziploc bags but waxed paper and aluminum foil were just as likely.

Dolls were plastic, as were other cheap toys. But many toys were still metal. And things like shampoos, lotions, detergents seemed to always be in plastic containers of a type that could grow brittle if you had them for a couple of years. Pens and binders were always plastic too. But plastic wrapped things, shrink-wrapped items, equipment sold in blister packs or sealed in a stiff transparent plastic, those we did not have…much.

Now they’re everywhere. Plastic bags ooze out of ever garbage can. Clothing is made of recycled plastic and we worry about birds and other animals eating discarded bits of plastic or getting entangled. Vancouver is thinking of banning plastic bags. Stores would have to resort to paper or you bring your own cloth bag. The problem with banning all plastic bags is what do you use for your garbage can? Then you’d have to buy bags as opposed to re-using them. But then Vancouver is about to start curbside composting so garbage cans won’t have to be lined. But what do you pick dog poop up with?

And speaking of poop, what would happen if everyone went back to cloth diapers. Disposable (a misnomer if there ever was one) diapers cause huge strains on landfills. I remember my mother holding my little brother’s cloth diaper over the toilet and flushing the chunky bits down before tossing them in the washing machine. Many of my friends have used diaper services where you just toss soiled diapers, chunks and all, into a pail and the service deals with it all. It turns out to not be any more expensive than buying the disposables and probably better for baby’s bum too.

Look around and you’ll see how much plastic is on you or surrounding you. Plastic shoes, soles, purses, wallets, buttons, nylons, phones, furniture, etc. All of it. And most of it will take a very very long time to break down and will not add anything beneficial to the environment. Plastic like air pollution, has increased exponentially in the last century and it’s a huge problem. There are countries were you can walk the beaches for the plastics and animals are dying, at the rate of extinction for some. Next time you buy those prepackaged handy lunch packs in a plastic container and then shrink wrapped, ask if there would be a better way to do this, such as buying or making something in bulk and having reusable containers that you can use over and over. I think it’s more pervasive than we realize and is a large contributor to what’s causing our overflowing and toxic landfills.

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Martha Stewart Move Over: Holiday Gift Wrapping

Every year, we fall into the gift giving, shopping frenzy. Then the gifts need to be wrapped to pass on to the recipient, or sit beneath a tree or other seasonally symbolic item. Stores are rife with wrapping paper and bows and boxes and bags.

It started to bother me that I would often wrap a gift five minutes before giving it to someone and it would be unwrapped as quickly, the beautiful paper being discarded. The worst culprits threw out everything, whether paper, bow, or ribbon. Nothing was re-used because they were too lazy to deal with it.

The other end was my mother who saved every scrap of paper. When I was visiting a few years back I went through her hoard. She had paper filling two boxes, each three feet high and two feet square. There were bits of paper so crumpled and small that they couldn’t be used for anything. My mother had enough paper to wrap gifts for the next hundred years. Once I sorted her wrapping paper, there was a little pile about six inches deep.

Still, there is the issue of buying paper, wasting trees for something that won’t be used for long and really serves no utilitarian purpose but to decorate another gift. I vowed not to buy wrapping paper about ten years ago now. That’s for any gifts, whether Christmas, Hanukkah or birthday, or anything in between. I still have enough regular gift paper that I haven’t needed to buy any. Plus, people give me gifts and I save the paper and bows as much as possible.

Something else I started doing was keeping the calendars from the year before. Many of them had pictures of art or nature and I found these worked well for wrapping gifts. They’re of a more set size but I put one calendar page on one side and a different one on the other side of the gift. The paper is thicker and harder to handle. Lightly scoring it with a blade makes it bend around corners better and the gift won’t poke through the paper.

Sometimes items are just the wrong shape for the paper you have on hand. And some shapes aren’t an easy rectangle or sphere. For the holidays, I make cloth bags. Buying cheap Christmas/seasonally imprinted cotton and stitching on a string is the easiest way. If I don’t leave wrapping to the last minute, I can even put in a drawstring. The bags can then be used in other years to put gifts into or for carrying shoes, laundry, food, whatever. People have used them for different things. If I know someone is a sewer, I’ll just buy a piece of cool fabric and wrap it around the gift, making it part of the giving.

There are many alternatives to using up wrapping paper for gifts. A cookie tin, a jar, a wooden box can all be included as part of the gift and lessen the wastage on paper materials. Recycling is always there but if you don’t use the paper to begin with, then it doesn’t have to be recycled.

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