One night, a few years ago, I rode home from Boston with my dad. As we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 24, we passed the time, as usual, by debating ideas and discussing things that bothered us. I was studying environmental policy at Boston University at the time, and when we landed on the subject of my classes I mentioned to him how I felt that my chosen career path seemed futile because it felt like I was working toward an outcome that, at best, meant delaying the inevitable. This fear had arisen from the realization that what we deem lasting or durable enough to call “sustainable” cannot be sustained indefinitely and until we raise the standard for sustainability, our actions will never be enough.
We live in a world where virtually everything is made out of plastic or some other non-biodegradable material. Sure, there’s recycling, but not everything can be recycled. Think you’re helping the planet by recycling those plastic water bottles? Think again. The caps can’t be recycled. They go straight to the landfill along with many other products you may think you are recycling but are really only sending to the recycling plant to be thrown away, including juice boxes, pizza boxes, and wire hangers. Then, even when we can recycle or reuse things, they are still thrown out eventually or not actually recycled. A water bottle can only be sent through so many cycles before someone throws it away. Plastic bags may be used to carry a lunch or line a small trash can, but this only means gaining one or two more uses at most before the bags are thrown away. Unwanted computers and other electronics are often sent off to be recycled, only to be exported to landfills in third-world countries1. “Non-disposable” or “reusable” products and other things meant to last are overlooked by many environmental activists because they are not purchased with intention of disposal in mind, but these products will degrade and be thrown away just like all of the disposable products we would have used otherwise. Everything degrades eventually and everything must, at some point, be replaced. What does this mean? Everything eventually ends up in a landfill, somewhere. If the things we make, consume, and discard are non-biodegradable (meaning they take hundreds or thousands of years to degrade) or if they are made of toxic chemicals that can be released as a product degrades, we are in serious trouble.
If we really want to make change, we need to revamp the entire system. We need a technological revolution in which we switch to biodegradable and natural materials for our products and packaging. Yes, this means eliminating plastics entirely. Unfortunately the legislation necessary to make this possible is very unlikely to happen. Businesses find plastics favorable because they satisfy the desire for short-term profit and degrade quickly enough to maintain a rapid cycle of obsolescence, and our government is tied to puppet strings held by large corporations. I don’t mean to be depressing. I mean to be realistic. Some might argue that delaying environmental catastrophe is better than allowing it to come faster. I don’t know about you, but if it’s going to happen anyway I’d rather not spend my life working so hard to fight it. I’d like to prevent environmental damage entirely and help to create a culture that is truly sustainable. This is only possible if we get serious, change our ways of thinking, and make the logical choices, however difficult they may seem.
1 An interesting article about where our old technology ends up: http://www.ban.org/library/AwayIsAPlaceEssayFINAL.pdf