Plastic: A day’s inventory

This Article was first published in the Washington Island Observer.

By Alessandra Simmons

When I moved to Washington Island, I was impressed with the hands-on approach to trash. It is good we are forced to throw our garbage out twice — once in the household trash can and once at the dump. Now that there are fees associated with getting our garbage out of the house, we are even more confronted with what we waste.

Only in the last one hundred years have humans begun to produce nonorganic waste--trash that doesn’t decay or break down.

Prior to that, our wrappers, containers and tools were glass, paper, wood or other plant materials like corn husks. But today, everything seems to be plastic. While it does not break down in our lifetime, we have come to think of plastic as disposable.

As someone born into a time when plastic use is prolific, I can’t even imagine the world without it. If I’m being honest, I’m not even aware of how much I use plastic on a daily basis. So, to understand how pervasive it is, I took an inventory from a typical day.

I check the time on my cell phone encased in plastic. I take my plastic contacts out of their plastic case. I change the baby’s diaper (30 percent plastic). I put on jeans (17 percent polyester, a plastic polymer). I make coffee. The kettle handle is plastic, the coffee strainer is partly plastic. I put in creamer from a plastic-coated milk carton. I eat yogurt from a plastic container, type five, not recyclable on the Island. I take the plastic sticker off a peach. I cut it with a plastic-handled knife. Then I wash dishes with soap from a plastic bottle and mostly plastic sponge.

I harvest flowers into plastic buckets, with scissors with plastic handles. I arrange bouquets on a plastic collapsible table.

I brush my teeth: plastic toothbrush and plastic toothpaste tube. I wash my hair with product from a plastic bottle. I empty the bottle, it is plastic number one, and I can recycle it, if I rinse it out. My shower curtain is plastic. The shower head is plastic. I think the bathtub is plastic too.

I open a plastic bag of kettle chips. I reach into a plastic bag and pull out a slice of bread. I toast it in my metal and plastic toaster. I open a plastic container of chicken salad to make a sandwich. Plastic bottle of mustard, mayo. I put a load of laundry in the washing machine, the interior is made of plastic. I pour laundry soap from a plastic bottle. When the cycle is complete, I pull it into my plastic laundry basket to hang it on the line. I slip into my plastic flip flops to walk out onto the lawn.

In my car, the inside is made of hard plastic. At the store, I buy three ears of corn, partly shucked and wrapped on a styrofoam tray with plastic wrap. I reach past the Styrofoam and plastic egg containers and select one in cardboard case. At home, I throw away the Styrofoam tray and plastic wrap from the corn in my trashcan lined with a plastic grocery bag.

My son practices drinking from a plastic sippy cup. It leaks. I left it out in the sun all day and I’m afraid it’s lost it shape a bit and the lid doesn’t screw on quite as well. Though it is supposed to be reusable, my neglect, I fear, has turned it into plastic trash. It’s a hot day. I drive to the ice cream shop. Eat a scoop from a Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon. I throw both away when I am done. At the farmers market, I fill thin plastic bags with lettuce to sell to customers.

With a nylon and plastic stroller, I take my son for a walk. I am wearing plastic sunglasses. I put sunscreen on both of us. squeezing it out of a plastic tube. I order iced tea in a plastic to-go cup with a plastic lid. When I am finished, I put it in a plastic recycling bin. Along the shoreline of Jackson Harbor, I see bits of Styrofoam, synthetic yellow rope, plastic shotgun shells, a green plastic mold used for making sandcastles and plastic Coke bottles among the driftwood and decaying plant matter.

I type on my computer: plastic keys. I plug in the plastic encased power cord into the plastic wall outlet. I open the refrigerator, plastic handle, metal and plastic door. I snack on last night’s leftovers which are stored in a plastic Tupperware.

My mother remembers life before plastic. As a kid, she tells me, it was her chore to line the kitchen trash can with newspaper (not plastic bags). At the store, more goods were sold in bulk without plastic containers and logos.

But still, I wonder, how was shampoo sold? How did people drink iced tea? How did people carry cheese, broccoli, and sausage home from the grocery store? My imagination is weak and unlearned, but as I google photos of the great pacific garbage patch, I know I must learn how to live with much less.

Columnist Alessandra Simmons is a poet, gardener and PhD student at UWMilwaukee. She’s inspired by the beauty of nature every day and loves to learn about its intricacies. “Everyday nature” is sponsored by the Washington Island Art and Nature Center. The Art and Nature Center is dedicated to the promotion, preservation and understanding of the creative arts and natural history of Washington Island.

Plastic and driftwood collected from Jackson Harbor. photo by alessandra simmons