While little has the power to shock these days, 45’s evisceration of climate change rules still horrifies. Here in America, it’s a matter when-not-if we’ll start donning face masks to walk the dog. Also, when-not-if we’ll look back with something like fondness for such a quaint inconvenience as a face mask. This week marks yet another threshold moment we’ll someday read in history books about humankind’s relationship with its home.
Sweet notion, isn’t it? That we’ll have books? That anyone’s left to write them?
I understand that we need to fight back. Win at least one chamber of Congress. Jail another white supremacist or two, block the next attempt to gut the ACA, block the cops in riot gear with our cameras and bodies.
What I don’t understand is why we still insist on paper plates.
The mom at the rec center sets the table for her kid’s birthday party. Plastic forks, disposable cups, plates and tablecloths shiny with petroleum-based coating. At the restaurants, even the ones where you sit and someone brings you an actual dish made out of actual porcelain, your iced tea comes with straw. Half the time, it’s already unwrapped for you.
Do we all regress to 4 years old when we go to Olive Garden? Can we not be trusted to lift a glass?
In the food court at the university where I work. At my son’s elementary school. At the mall, at the cookout, at every catered conference buffet lunch. At a friend’s game night when they’re hosting barely a dozen people, where right in the kitchen sit both an idle dishwasher and a spacious sink that has clean water running free from the tap.
At the cookout, the ice cream social, the neighborhood picnic.
Paper goddamned plates. Mountains of them. And foam plates and plastic plates, even separate mini plates for the dessert because heaven forbid the birthday cake touches a smear of leftover pizza sauce.
Plastic spoons in plastic sleeves, individually wrapped separately from the plastic forks in plastic sleeves. Paper coffee cups, plastic lids, plus the extra cardboard cummerbund so your hand doesn’t get too hot. Styrofoam trays, plastic-coated milk cartons. Waxed paper sleeves wrapped around sandwiches and french fries. Plastic bags of corn chips, plastic bowls of cereal sealed with plastic wrappers. Stacks of waxed cups for fountain drinks, waxed tubs for popcorn.
This outrage at the climate regulations, I understand it. Emissions from factories and vehicles far eclipse (literally, horrifically) any individual carbon output. That’s truth, even if truth gets trampled in the cutthroat grab for corporate campaign contributions.
Are we so pure in our outrage?
We know waste from both the manufacture and disposal of these products disproportionately harms poor communities and communities of color, both in the US and certainly around the world. We know that toxins released in their production and breakdown are absorbed into our soil, oceans, marine life, and ultimately us. These facts have existed out in the realm of public knowledge for 40-odd years.
So why aren’t more of us setting the birthday table with reusable plates and cups? All it takes is a box or bin to lug them home for washing. What’s stopping us from carrying the travel mug every day? Chaotic kitchen cabinets and mismatched lids must be easier to remedy than ecological collapse. Why don’t we offer up our own containers at the Thai place and wait the three extra minutes required to pack up our take-out? The restaurant owners want our business. They may balk at the new approach but they’ll get used to it. (Says the girl who ate curried tofu from styrofoam before starting to type a certain blog post.)
Policy matters. Regulation of industry has kept more than a few trees standing, more than a few lungs clear. We certainly must press for national and global initiatives like Paris and Kyoto. Our so-called representatives need to know that we’re watching and voting, and that we expect them to advocate more for the health of our world and our world’s children than for their own immediate enrichment.
While we raise our voices publicly, we — this includes me — also need to take stock of how we put convenience and comfort ahead of a greater good. Every one of these seemingly self-interested habits ultimately works against us, which means a little honesty wields a lot of power. What if we began counting every straw, every plastic spoon, every paper plate? What if we noticed that our one lunch box cuts X pounds of trash over a lifetime? One lunch box + 1 set of reusable silverware and chopsticks + 1 mug + 1 water bottle = 4X pounds?
What if we discovered that a few small shifts in behavior eventually added up to a measurable impact?
While individual choices do not equal global transformation, they do comprise it. The collective still and always will require its component parts.
Your passion turned to action, my outrage touching ground.
Image: Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)