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More About Plastic

The Road to Resilience

My column on affordable housing in the last issue was one that was first published several months ago.  I was delirious with fever at the time last week’s column needed to be in and didn’t even get it together to tell as much to The Loop.  One of my older columns was chosen to fill in, one of my better one’s, if I do say so myself.  However, there was a meeting announced in that article that happened months ago.  I hope not many of you were inconvenienced by that.  I will say that there is certainly strong interest/concern out there to deal with affordable housing, and perhaps another meeting, a more interactive one, is in order.

As to my delirium of a couple weeks ago, some plucky streptococci pioneers staked out 250 acres on the back of my right calf.  My intellectual self was somewhat worried, but my body went into full out paranoia, fever, shakes, aches, and nausea.  To make a long story short, I ended up in the hospital on IV antibiotics and witness to a dramatic and humbling display of our dependence on plastic.

We all know that our hospitals are veritable germ resorts, but it is hard to imagine how bad they would be without plastic.  I was barely there five minutes before the first plastic package was being removed and thrown away.  Inside was more virgin plastic that would also be tossed after being used.  In the old days, metal and glass would be sterilized and reused.  The problem was how to keep it sterile until it could be used again.  There was also the question of how thorough the sterilization was.  After all, the object was just used on somebody that was sick and possibly crawling with voracious bacteria.

Sanitation is certainly a consideration with food handling, as I discussed a few columns back, but finding alternatives to plastic use in the healthcare industry is considerably more daunting.  It turns out that the healthcare industry turns out about 1,500 tons of plastic every day.  On the bright side, about 85 percent of that is relatively germ free and either number 2 or number 5, both of which can be recycled somewhere.  As I said in the previous column, it is not actually recycled to organic substances, but is down-cycled into deck boards and such.  It is all still plastic and cluttering our planet.  Until we as a society put a price on plastic garbage, and make producers more responsible for the plastic refuse their products create, it will be difficult to move us toward changing our habits and being responsible for our plastic pollution.

If we concentrate on the low-hanging fruit, we can make a dent in our plastic problem.  One of my most detested products is plastic-bottled water.  The various beverage industries have really done a job on making us think that walking around with a plastic water bottle somehow identifies us as a green, progressive, health conscious person.  Plastic water bottles are not cool!  Public water, which is regulated by the EPA, needs to be tested for impurities multiple times a day.  Bottled water, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, needs only weekly monitoring, and the results do not need to be shared with the public.  If you source your daily water needs from your home tap, it will cost you about 49 cents a year.  If your source is bottled water, it will cost you about $1,400.  The plastic water bottles we use require the use of 17 million barrels of oil annually. That’s enough to run 1.3 million cars for a year or heat 190,000 homes.  More water is used in making the bottle than is contained in it.  If you are the average American, you used 167 water bottles last year, but only recycled 38.  As a whole, we used 50 billion water bottles last year and three-fourths of them are on the beach, in the woods, on the side of the road, or maybe under the sofa.

If all the water accessible to you is contaminated, then a plastic water bottle is what you will need to use, but it drives me crazy to see those trucks in disaster areas loaded with thousands of 12 oz. water bottles, in those shrink wrapped 24 bottle cases.  And where do you suppose all those bottles will be in a day or two?  I should think it would not be difficult and perhaps far cheaper to deliver bulk water and reusable containers to put it in.  

My humble opinion:  unless somebody is actually dying of thirst, it is not cool to offer somebody a disposable plastic bottle of water, nor is it cool to accept one.  To think so is to be completely duped by PepsiCo, Nestle, and others who are making money hand over fist while privatizing more and more of our public water resources.