BARGES piled high with garbage on long-term odysseys through exotic ports have drawn ridicule. Yet the same people who laugh are often drinking and eating from disposable plastic products, and using many of the other amenities ``necessary'' for modern life. The saga of these ships' journeys might be funny were it not for the incredible seriousness surrounding our inability to manage our own wastes. The peril of the solid-waste problem can be appreciated in the example of the plastic-foam beverage cup. Built to keep coffee warm for minutes, it lasts virtually forever. Resistance to salt, acid, rust, bacteria, and breakage made it into the miracle substance that transformed our culture. It was so cheap, efficient, and convenient that its use proliferated wildly.
Plastics, however, are found to be less expensive than alternative materials only if we disregard their true environmental costs. By weight, plastics comprise about 10 percent of the 450,000 tons of refuse produced in the United States every 24 hours; however, they account for as much as 30 percent of landfill volume. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one-third of America's cities will run out of landfill space within three years, and half will do so within 10 years.
Municipal waste incinerators are looming large on the horizon, offering a quick-fix solution to those with little foresight. Over 100 such facilities are in operation in the US today. In the process of burning waste, toxic pollutants such as lead, mercury, arsenic, hydrochloric acid, and dioxins are released as emissions.
Another ``solution'' to the waste-disposal problem has been garbage imperialism, or the export of toxic waste from industrialized countries to capital-starved ``developing'' ones. The EPA estimates that 2.2 million tons of toxic waste are transported across international borders yearly. Meanwhile, ocean dumping of millions of pounds of packaging materials and huge quantities of indestructible plastic nets by commercial fishing fleets causes painful death for millions of sea birds, 100,000 marine mammals, and many sea turtles each year.
New York's Suffolk County has been a leader in the struggle against the disposable society. With landfills near capacity, in 1987 it banned non-biodegradable packaging of fast foods.
The primary culprit was Styrofoam, a nonrenewable product synthesized from dwindling petroleum reserves. Each cup contains 1 billion chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) molecules, which last for up to 150 years. CFCs are a major contributor to the depletion of the atmosphere's protective ozone layer.
While such actions are commendable, and preferable to incineration or export, recycling efforts and biodegradability are not the promised panaceas. The real solution: reduced consumption.
Industry is responding to public pressure and legal action. A coalition of oil and chemical companies has made a commitment to building several massive recycling plants. The acknowledged incentive of the program is to defuse demands for an outright ban on certain products. While it is better to end up with useful plastic products rather than ever-enlarging landfills, the problem is we are still generating more plastic.
Italy has enacted legislation requiring all plastics to be degradable by this year. Degradable plastics can be photodegradable or biodegradable. Since almost nothing in nature destroys plastic, however, these particles will remain. We don't know the long-term consequences of filling the world with plastic sand.
Currently less than 0.5 percent of all plastic products in America is degradable. Landfills rarely contain the appropriate moisture, nutrients, or communities of microorganisms necessary for encouraging rapid natural decay. Jeanne Wirka of Environmental Action states: ``There are newspapers that have been dug up in landfills that are 30 years old and still can be read.''
A true ecologist or eco-feminist would never use a disposable plastic product. They would remember back to a time when the world worked fairly well without these conveniences. People ate and drank off real dishes and simply washed them. According to Donella Meadows of Dartmouth College: ``It's easier to deal with a flood by turning it off at its source than by inventing better mopping technologies.''
Ten years ago I made a personal commitment to the Earth that I would never again eat off disposable plastic. Consequently I carry a cup in my purse, and if I attend an environmental picnic or dinner, I bring my own plate and silverware. When ordering in restaurants, I specifically tell the waitress that I will not accept anything brought in plastic (jelly, straws, etc.) and why.
I carry a reusable string bag for shopping. I purchase fruits, vegetables, and nuts primarily from local farmers at roadside stands, thus avoiding the glut of packaging found in almost every American supermarket. Instead of using plastic garbage bags, I simply wash my garbage can each week. These decisions have required a little more effort on my part, but such effort has not been a major inconvenience, and I feel great for decreasing my contribution to the solid-waste problem.
I want to be part of a culture that is sustainable. The disposable society is not. We don't need further studies to know that we are drowning in a sea of plastic waste. The garbage binge must end.