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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

We are Flesh and Bone, Spirit and Relationships ... not Plastic

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Cheese wrappers... that’s what did it. I thought I knew how much single-use plastic I was using throughout the day, but then, cheese wrappers.

On the Beach, photo by johnhenryf

As a follow-up to Earth Week, I decided to record my single-use plastics from today through a log provided by the Alliance for the Great Lakes. I mentally counted up all the food wrappers, toothpaste, toothbrush and floss containers, etc., and while I was disappointed in the final number, I wasn’t surprised. As I heard someone say recently, our world is “wrapped in plastic.”

But then I looked in my trash can and realized I only remembered a fraction of the plastic food wrappers I used and threw away that day, including the cheese wrappers. And the total didn’t even include all the food wrappers that were in the refrigerator or freezer still, only to be thrown away at a future date. Clearly, I like cheese, but now, I’ve moved from disappointed to depressed.

Unfortunately, depression is at best, a temporary motivator for change, and at worse, something that can freeze you into inaction.

It’s hard not to be depressed about plastic pollution in our world. While the coronavirus is a reminder of the central role plastics play in protecting people from disease (think plastic disposable gloves, face shields, IVs, etc.), plastics still cause immense problems for people and the planet.

A Rochester Institute of Technology study reports that almost 22 million pounds of plastic enter the waters of the Great Lakes every year. The Alliance for the Great Lakes reports that plastic makes up 80% of the trash gathered by its volunteers during its annual beach clean-up.

And of course, if plastics are in the water, that means they’re inside us. The plastic microbeads that were in personal care products like shampoo were banned in 2017, but the plastic that continues to fill the Great Lakes still breaks down into tiny particles. And those tiny plastic particles are showing up in the drinking water of over 30 million people who depend on the Lakes for clean water.

However, is the problem of plastic pollution simply one of practical use? Can we recycle our way out of the problem, or just substitute the plastic with something else?

Sasha Adkins, in her Sojourners February 2020 article titled, “Poison to Body and Soul,” argues that the use of plastics is killing us both physically and spiritually.

“Disposable plastic is toxic not only to the body but also to the soul,” Adkins writes. “The more we normalize short-term utility as the main criterion for evaluating the things around us, the more disconnected we become from a sense of the inherent worth of creation. The more we cultivate this habit of the heart of seeing things as disposable once they no longer serve us, the less able we are to find the beauty and value in our relationships with each other, or even the intrinsic value in ourselves once we are no longer ‘productive.’”

The first part of her article moves through a litany of plastic’s hazards, like the health effects on people who make the stuff, as well as the environmental shortcomings of the current recycling system, which she says, “conditions us to accept a disposable culture.”

In the second part of the piece, Adkins asks us to “invest in sustainable relationships,” and it’s that investment that can help us move beyond depression into real change.

“I realized that opting myself out of the system was not enough. The whole system must change. And not just one plastic straw at a time,” she writes. “Transforming disposable culture is not just a matter of substituting the latest bioplastic, compostable version of a throwaway item. It is about changing our cultural narratives so that our decisions are not based solely on what is convenient for ourselves but on what is life-giving for all of us. It is as much about investing in sustainable relationships, both at the interpersonal and international levels, as it is about sustainable packaging.”

So, what does “investing in sustainable relationships” practically mean for plastics in the Great Lakes? First, reducing our consumption of single-use plastics is a must. Second, improving clean water infrastructure is vital, especially to communities that are under-served. Flint, MI serves as a powerful reminder of how important clean water is. Third, supporting efforts and research that are unique to the Great Lakes is important. As the Alliance for the Great Lakes points out, the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are different than the oceans, so we need to adapt our efforts to these conditions. Fourth, focusing on systemic change is essential, communicating with our political and business leadership about the need to cut out single-use plastic and reducing overall plastic use whenever possible.

Also, we need to see the problems of plastic pollution in the context of how we are living our individual lives and structuring our society. That is a spiritual and moral issue that confronts the question of disposability that Adkins raises. Considering the problem of disposability or short-term thinking is not new. Many people, including indigenous communities, have been addressing this issue for a very long time.

But in a time of the coronavirus, when questions are raised about who gets the use of a ventilator, or how many lives lost are worth opening up the economy again, the disposability of people and in turn the environment seem more pressing.

The answer in part, I believe, is a spiritual one. As Adkins writes, “I want to see the world through God’s eyes. All of this helps me remember that everything is sacred.”

That “everything” includes cheese, I suppose. I remember as a child, my mom would buy cheese at the local grocery store and bring it home in wrapped paper, so that’s my next step. But it’s only a microstep, a reminder that I and our society need to change not only our practical habits and communal policies, but also how we relate to the world around us. We are made of flesh and bone, spirit and relationships... but not plastic.

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