Tag Archives: plastics

The Disposable Society

Imagine a time when you either wove your own fabric from skeins of wool or cotton, maybe even carding and spinning the wool. Or perhaps you bought the bolt of cloth and made your own garments by hand, or were lucky enough to have a foot treadle sewing machine. If you could you might have bought one fine dress and it was your Sunday dress or suit, worn for years until it wore out. Any garment you had would be recycled as it fell apart, the usable pieces cut out and either made into something else or used to patch a new garment. Nothing was wasted. You wore your shoes until they fell off of you, probably having been repaired and patched as many times as possible.

If you bought (or even if you butchered yourself) part of a cow, you would use every scrap possibly, make soup from bones. Even slight old vegetables or meat that was still good would be cooked or preserved in some way as soup, stews or pickled. Dish water might be reused several times or people would bathe in the same water. Everything was used until it could not be used anymore. Baskets or carts were taken to market laden with goods, and brought back again with different items.

Just think, only one hundred years ago, this was the norm for the average person. Before the age of industrialization it was very much the way and life consisted of one of existence and keeping a roof over your head and feeding you and your loved ones. Communities worked together and spare time was time to socialize because it was rare but everyone needed some fun and leisure.

Once industrialization began, machines could make things faster and cheaper, cutting down on labor (which caused its own problems in labor of course) and soon most people did not need to know how to sew or mend, could own a couple of pairs of shoes and could buy various items easily. As we progressed past the war years, we started to enter the disposable society. Imagine the rationing of World War II when everything from food to rubber was rationed so that the front lines had enough and that equipment could be made towards the war. This would never happen today because there are numerous supply lines from various countries and shipping through various forms of transportation.

You would have an outhouse and if lucky, perhaps a newspaper or magazine, that once read from cover to cover, would be used as toilet paper. If no newspaper, you probably had buckets of leaves. Water was gathered from a pump or a well and heated on a wood stove, the wood which you chopped yourself. You would probably grow many of your own vegetables, raise a few chickens for eggs and if on a farm, you’d be butchering your own meat. Bread was made from scratch as was everything else. What surplus you had was sold for items such as plows, hoes, shoes, ribbons, fabric, treats or other food that you didn’t have, candles, lamp oil, axes, horses, cows, chickens, maybe a book if you were learned and could afford a bit extra.

If you look at your life in contrast to someone’s of a hundred years ago you will have numerous clothes, good and casual, several pairs of shoes or more, and coats for several seasons. You live in a place with many books (if you’re into books) or magazines or newspapers. You have a TV, a computer, a land or cell phone (or both) and a host of other electronic devices that make eating, sleeping, working and leisure time easier. You don’t have to make all your food from scratch or even have a garden. Vegetables and fruit are available year-long, plus exotic foods that only the elite once ate. We throw out clothes when they go out of fashion or get a bit worn. We can buy new clothes for as little as a few bucks.

Most of us don’t even need to take our basket or cart to market, though more and more people are using cloth bags. And this in itself has generated an industry of plastics so cheap that you get a bag with every purchase. The bags are disposable, like the clothes, the slightly worn shoes, a computer three years old, a car that is five years old, a book, jewellery or food in such abundance that we let it go bad. But is it truly disposable? We throw or give these things away and once out of sight, out of mind. But many of these items end up in landfills or garbage heaps or somewhere where they will take a thousand years or more to decompose.

Imagine, in a thousand years we went from the Byzantine Empire to today. Religions were born, societies fell, cultures changed. And now, we constantly waste, all of us. There are countries in the world that are too poor to waste anything, but anyone in western culture, Europe or North America wastes, no matter how good we are at recycling. So that means we all have room to improve. And if we really want to take a look at the popular carbon footprint, then it does not just mean taking the bus instead of driving, or not flying. It means buying foods that are made locally, or grown yourself. These aspects we know, but where do our clothes and our shoes, our computers and iPods come from? How much carbon is used in the manufacture of these items and the shipping of them?

I believe every person could try harder to be less wasteful, which would preserve our resources longer, and really think about that carbon footprint. Money and resources flow through us as if the sluice gates were wide open.  The carbon footprint is everywhere, not just in food or transportation. It’s not an easy solution, nor a fast one and will take years of us looking differently at everything, but maybe we can change our society from being one of disposable and consumeristic to being one of conserving and re-using.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under consumer affairs, Culture, environment, food, history, home, life, people, shopping

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.

2 Comments

Filed under consumer affairs, environment, food, health, history, nature, science, technology

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under cars, Culture, environment, history, internet, life, nature, people, science

Plastic: Recycle or Ban

Vancouver has recently been debating whether to ban plastic shopping bags or not. I was of a mixed mind. After all, if all plastic bags are banned, what do we put our garbage in? I also try to use cloth bags but forget about half the time. Still, I’m sure if there were no plastic bags tomorrow, I would have enough bags for garbage for over a year.

Plastic bags have only been around fifty years or so and they are already a major problem for landfills. But landfill would not be that much of a problem if in fact our garbage was only organic and biodegradable. I would bet that studies will show that plastic water bottles are also contributing largely to the problem. Many North American cities now have recycling programs to filter out paper, glass, tin and plastics so that they are not sitting for hundreds of years in landfills. It’s not a policed system (much) so it takes people’s participation to really work. And not all cities have recycling, which in this day and age, is a sin.

I had a theory that when I use plastic bags for garbage it makes more sense to leave organic waste in than to filter it out because it would help compost the plastic. In theory I was right, but I found out a couple of things that counteract this. Many landfills are lined with clay and other materials to retain seepage of dangerous chemicals. As well, a layer or dirt may be pushed over the garbage to keep down the odor. That’s good for containing the problem but organic waste only breaks down if it has the right amount of bacteria, light and oxygen. Burying the garbage restricts the ability of UV radiation and air needed to break down even a lettuce leaf.

One bacteria that breaks down some types of plastic is Pseudomonas in a process called
bioremediation. Plastic is man-made from petroleum based hydrocarbons and polyethylene (there are other materials as well). The hydrocarbons in the plastic serve as food for the bacteria but there is a question of how long it can take to break down, and what toxic residue is left behind.

The plastic bags that many of us use in many countries are not always discarded safely, nor are they reused. I mentioned an incident in India in my “Not Throwing in with the Crowd: Litter” article. https://colleenanderson.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=76  Plastics in ground and sea get into the water and the soil, slowly poisoning it and affecting all life forms. They can also kill an animal that accidentally eats the plastic, mistaking it for food. And many animals are ensnared by plastic, trapping or injuring them until they expire.

This heartbreaking slideshow was sent to me by a friend. Just click on it to see the effects of plastic bags. If you don’t believe the statistics, the pictures alone should encourage us all to try harder.  thedangersofplasticbags After seeing this and doing a bit of research, I’m now wholeheartedly for banning plastic bags. There are ways of making garbage removal/composting work without the bags or with using other recycled materials that won’t redirect the burden onto trees for paper bags.

http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_12751.cfm

http://www.reusablebags.com/facts.php?id=2

http://www.rcbc.bc.ca/index.htm

 

Leave a comment

Filed under consumer affairs, Culture, environment, health care