Tag Archives: landfills

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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Archeology and Waste

? For some reason, even though I checked, WordPress did not publish this. A glitch in the system? Here is what was supposed to be Wednesday’s entry.

When archeologists dig around looking for artifacts there are several places that become treasure troves. Obviously where cities once were, and more, houses will relinquish many items of eras past. Various places that served as guildhouses or factories will have pieces that were considered of  inferior quality, or flawed some way. But the best place of all  to find treasures are the midden heaps.

These were the garbage piles, sometimes the leftovers of the latrines and garderobes. Castle toilets often just open from above with the waste falling down to a festering pile below. Some had troughs built and some might have been contained. But the best way to keep the stench down was to let some air in, even if the stench was below on the ground. Unwanted items and refuse went into various midden heaps. Garbage yes, but something worn out, something no longer wanted. Of course in the centuries past, possessions were hard won, made by hand and expensive to the common person.

A piece of clothing would be worn until it fell apart and usable pieces would be incorporated into newer garments, if they were salvageable. Utensils and dishes would be used through generations until they broke or wore out. Then they would be tossed on the midden heap. And of course, people have always lost things. Those who could afford a higher level of affluence would eventually toss out or pass to their servants an item they no longer wanted.

Our midden heaps of today are  landfills and garbage dumps. But whereas of old usually only the most worn out items would ended up in the dumps, now we have a plethora of discarded things. A thousand years from now, should humanity not have completely depleted resources and polluted the planet, there will be archeologists digging in our midden heaps.

This weekend I spent an hour going through my trough of pens, finding the ones that worked, unscrewing the ones that could be taken apart and trying refills in them. Not one of my refills fit these pens and though they say refillable we often just throw out the pen that has died. So yes, archeologists will find pens but perhaps fewer and fewer as they move up through the strata, indicating our greater dependence on electronic media. Yet, at home I have a glass calligraphic pen (Venetian), other calligraphy pens that use nibs to be dipped in ink or come with a cartridge, as well as ballpoints,  felt pens and pencils. I don’t use them as often as I once did but I do still use pens.

Our middens will contain numerous paper clips and pennies. Was any coin considered so beneath notice in Roman times or Rennaisance Italy? No wonder some places want to eliminate the penny (and make more money as a result). I’m sure there will be numerous hangers of wood, plastic and metal. These are the tiny items, along with buttons and zippers after the fabric has corroded away, that will litter our landfills.

Plastics eventually grow brittle and crack, breaking down and in a thousand years would only be evident if buried. So there will be some containers buried deeply, leeched of color and symbols. Glass of course perseveres for centuries so our dishes will still be there to check out. Clothing as stated, will deteriorate quickly, if it’s natural fiber but the polyester blends and synthetic-made-from-plastic-bags polar fleece will stick around a bit longer, though it’s still a plastic and will break down, even if it does take a long time.

And then there are the TVs, stereos, fridges, cars, phones, digital this and that’s and computers. Hundreds of thousands of computers. Archeologists will probably judge rightful conclusions from the fact that the midden heaps will be festooned with TVs and computers. And those conclusions will be that we were a wasteful society, that somehow these things gave out quickly (planned obsolescence–the worst idea to hit the last two centuries), that we needed them to survive or that we were a leisure society bent on possessions.

Well, yes, there it is. Waste not, want not. And unfortunately we waste a lot and want a lot, and our wastage will continue to leech into soil and water. Heavy metals, radioactive materials, plastics–they’re all changing our environments and if you wonder why were developing more and severe allergies, this is why.

But in essence, the future will be filled with archeologists trying to figure out what ran our society, what was prevalent, what was popular and cheap. Whether they’ll come away with that we were an affluent, decadent, careful or conservationist society will be in the making of each layer. I hope it’ll be evident before a thousand years have gone by that we started to change before it was too late.

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