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Nov 01 2013

If you can’t get rid of garbage, worship it

Every time you use a plastic bag at the grocery store or buy another bottle of water you are contributing to the deluge of one-use, throw-away plastic products that pile up in our landfills or float out to sea. One group in Baton Rouge is trying to raise consciousness with Sacred Waste, a performance art piece that illustrates the problem.

This performance art show is a unique blend of art and science – it conveys some of its information in some unusual and compelling ways: the costumes, the set, and all the props are made of discarded plastic – each costume is made of 100-300 plastic bags, one costume is made of about 300 plastic bottle caps, there’s a dragon made of about 3000 bags, and a tree made of plastic – yet we’re reminded that all the plastic on stage during the show only represents the amount of plastic Americans discard about every 100 milliseconds. One scene in the show personifies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a whirling dance…one scene involves a shaman ecstatically scrawling the structures of polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene on a plastic screen…one scene depicts the flow of plastic through a bird’s body. Each scene in the show explores a different aspect of our relationship with plastic and mixes science with mysticism, animal instincts with consumerism, creation myths with post-apocalyptic evolution and the “new nature”. If we taught more science this way (just a little more of it, certainly not all of it) – we might change a lot of people’s attitude toward science, in the way that this whole show hopefully also changes its audience’s attitudes toward plastic.

They have a kickstarter to play at the New Orleans Fringe Festival. They aren’t asking much, but a little donation would be very encouraging.

Oh, and try to stop buying stuff in disposable plastic packaging, too.

37 comments

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  1. 1
    Martin Wagner

    Single use plastic bags have been banned in Austin.

  2. 2
    =8)-DX

    Every time you use a plastic bag at the grocery store or buy another bottle of water you are contributing to the deluge of one-use, throw-away plastic products that pile up in our landfills or float out to sea.

    What? Bullshit. I recycle my lovely plastic bags and bottles are chopped into little pieces and compressed and other such nonsense to make them into coat and sleeping-bag fillings and bench seats. Or burnt. Of course I reuse bags as much as possible, and bring bags to the shop, but the problem of not throwing plastic into the sea/landfil is – recycle it.

    What I *do* feel bad about is the occasional mouldy plastic package of leftover cheese (with whole *new* moulds added, for that *mature* flavour) that I throw in the mixed trash..

  3. 3
    iknklast

    I just took my Environmental Science students on a tour of the local landfill and wastewater treatment plant. Because of tipping fees, the landfill used to discourage recycling; now they’re getting full with a City Council that doesn’t want to move on finding a new spot until they are actually full, and they are beginning to tell people to reduce packaging. The recycling center promotes the use of plastic because it can be recycled whereas glass is useless (we are in the midwest; the closest place that takes glass is a long way from here, and our recycling center would not make back the investment in transportation). I tell my students the only reason glass is useless as a recycled product is that too few people in this country are buying products in glass. That needs to change; in some parts of South America, a bottle will be reused as many as 20 times before being melted down and recycled.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    My parents don’t care much for environmental risks, but they reuse everything they can because they’ve been raised that way – reusing things saves you money, it’s senseless to throw away something that is still perfectly good.

    That’s why it’s good to attack this problem from two sides: how people are fucking up the environment and how they’re wasting their own resources stupidly.

  6. 6
    RFW

    P-zed, I’m ashamed of you. As a practicing biologist, you surely know the old saying “everything is deeply intertwingled” and realize that one must take a systems approach to such issues.

    The presumption that paper bags are preferable to plastic bags because “they’re made from renewable trees, not non-renewable oil” overlooks that paper manufacturing uses a great many other substances than trees. When energy costs are included in the balance sheet, you may discover that plastic bags actually use up less non-renewable resource than paper.

    Cautionary example: Martin Hocking, a chemistry professor at the University of Victoria (BC), used to work for a big plastics company. He sat down and analyzed the costs of manufacturing a paper coffee cup and a styrofoam one, and found that the styrofoam one used less oil to make, all things included. [I must add that I used to know Prof. Hocking, and I have no doubts about his probity.]

    Things aren’t always as simple as they appear.

  7. 7
    cgilder

    You would not believe the unholy stink people made about banning single-use plastic bags in Austin last year. Bringing your own damn bags was just so inconvenient and extra effort when you were going to the store to purchase food that had been grown and picked and packaged and shipped and priced and displayed for choosing at your leisure. FREEDOM! and all that, you know.

    And the reasoning wasn’t raw material usage. The biggest push for the ban was because plastic bags make up a huge proportion of the litter in the city. They blow around, get stuck on trees and fences and look awful. Then, add in the fact that they were causing lots of delays and expense at the recycling facilities when they got stuck in the machines after being improperly discarded. You can still use plastic bags, they just had to be a certain thickness and have handles so they are considered reusable (and they are. I get at least 10 uses out of the ones I’ve had to buy in a pinch for 25c/each.)

  8. 8
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    All that said, RFW, a paper bag is biodegradable in a way that a plastic bag is not.

  9. 9
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Some of our grocery stores take back plastic bags and our city recycling takes back grocery carrier bags only. There are also projects that knit them into more-or-less indestructible sleeping mats for the many people who sleep on floors or the ground. Unfortunately, discarded bags blow around the environment, where they trap water for mosquitoes to breed in or blow into the ocean where they kill sea creatures that try to eat them.

    I wonder if Austin could use a few kilns for teaching glass-blowing with recycled glass?

  10. 10
    cgilder

    I know several maker shops that would love a kiln! But Austin does have a very robust recycling program, and even glass that doesn’t get recycled gets turned into landscaping mulch :)

  11. 11
    Pierce R. Butler

    RFW @ # 6: He sat down and analyzed the costs of manufacturing a paper coffee cup and a styrofoam one…

    Using what data? Our so-called economists rarely if ever count by materials and energy, never mind the energy used in materials or the materials used for energy. An accurate tallying of what goes into either kind of cup would require a lot more digging than a few web searches and some back-of-envelope calcs.

  12. 12
    Inaji

    The presumption that paper bags are preferable to plastic bags

    Well, paper does degrade. And paper bags can be reused and re-purposed. That said, we don’t use paper or plastic. We have a stack of insulated shopping bags we use, and shop at a grocery store which doesn’t offer a bagging service, so it’s easy to use your own bags.

  13. 13
    magistramarla

    When we were living in California, many of the small communities around the Monterey Bay banned the use of plastic bags. We got into the habit of keeping reusable bags in the small storage compartment under the rear floor of our Prius.
    Now that we’re back in Texas, the cashiers at the grocery stores look at us strangely when we hand them our bags. I love hearing that Austin has banned plastic bags, but the rest of Texas needs to catch up. I don’t get to the gulf coast much, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the communities on the coast have banned them.
    It seemed that almost everything could be tossed into recycling in California. The recycling company here has many things that they refuse to take, including plastic bags. I do take those that I’ve collected to the bins in front of the grocery store, but it was lots easier in Ca, so I think more people tended to recycle there. I wish that it would be more standardized around the country.

  14. 14
    cgilder

    Brownsville was the first city in Texas to ban them, actually!

  15. 15
    alt3

    I tried using the reusable shopping bags but they have a habit for getting re-purposed with me and so tend to get covered in oil and antifreeze and other stuff I don’t necessarily want on my food.

    One of my biggest problems with litter, personally, is that I actually like it, on an aesthetic level. I keep a small gallery of landfills, oil spills, and post-forest fire landscapes on my phone just to look at. And in the summers I live in a cabin in a junk yard where I can see the county dump. However I know that my aesthetic preferences aren’t really a good basis for purchasing decisions, so I try to buy more responsibly.

  16. 16
    anchor

    As if it would be so gargantually inconvenient to everybody and the economy to bring one’s own durably reusable (and washable) sacks to fill at the market.

  17. 17
    JJ831

    It’s funny how quickly we adjust, I live in one of those city’s (I think it’s county wide) where plastic bags are banned, and paper bags will cost you ¢10 a pop. It’s been 2-3 years (maybe longer). When I am at grocery stores in other towns, it’s almost a shock to see everyone carrying plastic bags (I always have my reusable in my trunk, so I still use my own).

    RE:Plastic bottles – Lately I have noticed my plastic bottle usage has gone up significantly. I switched from drinking soda to carbonated water to reduce my sugar intake. So instead of a can of soda, I create like 3 plastic bottles.

    I really, really dislike looking at my recycling and seeing a can full of plastic bottles. Yes I recycle them all, but that still isn’t great. I have a solution though I am working on – Carbonating my own water. I have a CO2 system I use for my hombrew draft beer, and I can carbonate right in used plastic bottles! The only issue is keeping up with my demand.

  18. 18
    anuran

    I have a dog, so every plastic bag that comes into the house is used at least twice. When the local hackerspace buys its filabot they’ll all get recycled into useful things.

  19. 19
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Up until this summer, there was no way for me to recycle pill bottles because they are class 7385 plastics, but finally the waste company is taking like everything for recycling now, and they seem to keep increasing the types of stuff they will take. But I saved the incredible number of pill bottles we go through for years, only to give up and pitch them a mere 8 months before I could sneak them into the neighbors’ recycling.

  20. 20
    Tim Courtney

    #11
    Good thing Hocking is a Chemistry professor and not an economist then, eh?
    Believe it or not, factories are not magical black boxes. There are people who analyze what comes in and what goes out.

    While I’ll agree that anyone who buys bottled water by the case to drink at home is an idiot, plastic bags are not in the same boat. They use very little actual plastic, compared to quite a bit of material used for reusable shopping bags that many people buy and then just accidentally leave in their car anyway.

    I wouldn’t say plastic bags are an ideal solution, but they’re hardly the boogeyman, and pretty handy for people with dogs.

  21. 21
    Jafafa Hots

    My little bay-area city just banned plastic bags, will take effect in Jan.
    And this is a fairly conservative town for the bay area – overwhelmingly devout Catholic, two Tea Party members on the City Council (who take turns serving terms as Mayor).

  22. 22
    Inaji

    Speaking of trash, and the astonishing amount of recyclables tossed away, one of the best documentaries I ever saw was Waste Land.

  23. 23
    magistramarla

    Tim @ #20
    For coastal communities, those plastic bags are a huge problem.
    I’ve seen pictures of sea life that tried to swallow them, or got hopelessly tangled in a plastic bag or the plastic stuff that holds a six pack of bottles together. It’s a horrible sight.
    We’ve even come across dead sea lions or sea otters that have died that way when walking on the beach.
    Just seeing that once is enough to make a person much more conscientious about recycling and using reusable grocery bags forever.

  24. 24
    magistramarla

    JJ831 @ #17
    Have you looked at those “make your own soda” machines that Bed, Bath and Beyond sells?
    We saw a demo once, but we don’t need such a thing, since we don’t drink soda at all and the brita water filter is just fine for us when it comes to drinking water.
    That machine might be just what you need.

  25. 25
    Area Man

    I don’t really get the animus toward plastic grocery bags. I find them quite useful as miniature trash bags for small waste baskets, for cleaning the cat box, or for packing a lunch (not all at the same time, of course). If I didn’t get them for free at the grocery store, I’d have to find a substitute.

    Obviously, if they end up as litter, that’s a problem. But the problem is littering. Buried in a landfill, they take up very little space compared with other items. And while it might be a better world if we buried nothing in landfills, properly managed landfills are way down the list of environmental problems, something to be solved after we lick climate change and the many forms of pollution that harm human health.

  26. 26
    JJ831

    @24 – Yeah, I’ve taken a look at those as well, an I might spring for one. The main thing is I already have a draft system, though it’s currently setup for carbonating kegs (I have do have kegs of water, but I can’t take that to work). I have a “carbonator” that screws onto plastic bottles that allow me to carbonate directly in-bottle, but it takes time to do a large amount of bottles. I’m trying to setup a DIY system where I can use my current CO2 tanks.

    I’m trying to convince my employer to buy one, though. They already buy large amounts of sparkling water to keep in the fridge for everyone. Might just happen, as they were all for getting one of those K-cup coffee machines.

    @20 – As 24 mentions, plastic bags are a problem for the coastal communities. When there are outright bans on plastic bags, people tend to remember to bring them in (also, every store here has huge banners in the parking lots as reminders). Also, they tend to be either made out of recycled plastic. I also have a few made out of organic cotton as well (granted I have no idea what the impact of that cotton is).

  27. 27
    Weedless Monkey

    My apartment complex has a nice shed for domestic garbage, where there are separate bins for paper, cardboard, compost, glass, metal, batteries and probably something I’m forgetting at the moment… but plastic still goes into the landfill. While mere 100 kms away at my parent’s plastic is considered “energy waste” and used as fuel in a huge power plant. With carefully filtered exhausts, of course.

  28. 28
    Weedless Monkey

    Area Man

    I don’t really get the animus toward plastic grocery bags. I find them quite useful as miniature trash bags for small waste baskets, for cleaning the cat box, or for packing a lunch (not all at the same time, of course). If I didn’t get them for free at the grocery store, I’d have to find a substitute.

    I buy garbage bags. They are very thin (using the least amount of plastic) and cheap compared to the grocery store plastic bags (that cost something like €.10-.20). For groceries? A backpack.

  29. 29
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    We have cotton totes and, for the big grocery shopping, these nice foldable plastic boxes which can be transported with the sack barrow

  30. 30
    timgueguen

    So, what are folks using for garbage bags? That’s what store plastic bags get used for in my house. If we didn’t use those we’d just end up buying some other plastic bags for our garbage bins.

  31. 31
    Lofty

    In Adelaide, Australia plastic single use bags have been banned for some years, and it’s definitely reduced the amount of rubbish in the local environment. That and a 10c deposit sceme for single use drink containers. People do get used to creative solutions, like using yesterdays Murdoch rag to wrap their dog shit in instead. That can go in the green waste bin anyway.
    The most prominent litter infesting our beauty spots remains that of a well known international gang of fast food pushers, the Macdonalds. Fix that and the world will be a better place.

  32. 32
    JJ831

    Also in my area are bans on Styrofoam and plastic to-go food containers. Food containers that are allowed are paper and the bio-plastics (I’ve heard those bio-plastics aren’t nearly as bio friendly as they are sold, but still better than petroleum based ones).

    Jamba juice I remember pushed back, as they used Styrofoam cups. There is most no difference now that they use paper, no one lets a smoothie sit around long enough to melt :)

  33. 33
    Pierce R. Butler

    Tim Courtney @ # 20 – Maybe if I had done better in my chemistry classes, I would have made it to the level where they factored the gasoline used by lumberjacks and log trucks into the materials of wood pulp, and the bagging required for bentonite as part of the oilwell-drilling process as a hidden ingredient in styrofoam.

    With sincere praise for Prof. Hocking, I must reiterate my original point – economics as we know it leaves a gigantic hole in its own models by neglecting physical resources as comprehensively as it does, and the ad-hoc estimations of materials and process engineers lack the systematic analyses urgently needed for exactly this sort of discussion.

  34. 34
    Weedless Monkey

    timgueguen, #28.

    I buy garbage bags. They are very thin (using the least amount of plastic) and cheap compared to the grocery store plastic bags (that cost something like €.10-.20)

  35. 35
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    As always this brings Tim Minchen’s Canvas Bags to mind.

    I try to keep reusables in the car. Or in the house if I am walking to the shops. Very rarely I get plastic ones that are used as bin liner. The sheer waste, the resources in life cycle analysis, and the damage to our environment they cause is saddening. And for the comment about landfill being a problem for after climate change solving, what makes you think that tackling landfill isn’t something that goes towards a partial solution to that?

  36. 36
    Nick Gotts

    That’s why it’s good to attack this problem from two sides: how people are fucking up the environment and how they’re wasting their own resources stupidly. – Beatrice

    Unfortunately there’s evidence from social psychology that framing the issue in the second way can have the effect of pushing people in the direction of considering only their self-interest when such issues arise, see here for example.

    Things aren’t always as simple as they appear. – RFW@6

    The particular example you use may or may not be correct. But this kind of example is quite routinely used to sneer at people who are at least trying to shift their consumption habits in a less harmful direction. We can’t all spend a lot of time calculating whether it’s better to take a paper or a styrofoam cup when both are available, and in fact, for the individual this is really not a significant environmental issue. We need simple heuristics that work reasonably well, even if they sometimes give the wrong answer. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is one. “Don’t fly unless you absolutely have to” is another. “Don’t use non-biodegradable plastic containers if you can avoid it” is a third (see below).

    Obviously, if they [plastic bags] end up as litter, that’s a problem. But the problem is littering. – AreaMan@25

    But as others have pointed out, (non-biodegradable) plastic bags are a particularly damaging form of litter, when they end up in the ocean. It’s not just large for animals such as magistramarla mentions @23, either. Most plastics don’t degrade, they just get broken into smaller and smaller pieces, so smaller and smaller animals and even protists eat them, and then they often get stuck in their digestive systems.

  37. 37
    Walton

    I try not to throw out my plastic bags. Here in the UK local councils won’t collect them for recycling as far as I know – but Ocado, the online grocery store I use, will collect unwanted plastic bags (including those from other stores) and recycle them for free.

    As for water bottles (and Diet Coke bottles, of which I get through a great many), they are recyclable in most places, and I always recycle them.

    Styrofoam, however, is not recyclable and is a completely pointless and wasteful product. Thankfully it seems to be fairly rare here – Costa, Starbucks and so on serve their coffee in cardboard cups which are recyclable. I gather that Dunkin’ Donuts uses Styrofoam cups, but I’ve never been there, so could be wrong about that. I did notice that Styrofoam is more prevalent in the US when I was there, though.

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