Magazine | April 22, 2019, Issue

Drastic Plastic

A street vendor reaches for a plastic shopping bag after the New York State legislature included a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in their 2020 budget in Manhattan, April 2, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

As you may have heard, there’s an island of plastic the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean, because people in New York are driving across the country and dumping plastic straws and Starbucks take-out lids off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Well, probably not, but ocean plastic is our fault, because of capitalism. True; without capitalism, we would be squatting in huts slurping our drinks from hollowed gourds while a member of our extended clan picked nits from our back hair. Then again, that sounds like a weekend on the Jersey Shore.

I’m sorry. Where was I? Plastic waste. Right. New York is going to do its part by banning single-use plastic bags, because every day an agglomeration of cast-off bags forms a golem the size of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters and moves through the streets of New York before it tumbles into the Hudson, where it explodes into small dense wads that wedge themselves down the mouths of turtles and dolphins.

It seems as if they could make a dent by banning bags on odd-numbered days, requiring people to reuse them. It’s not as if single-use is the iron law of the land. I mean, everything is single-use if you want; a new car is single-use if you drive it off the lot and straight off the bridge.

People could switch to paper, but that’s bad because it requires cutting down trees, and we know Gaia screams in pain like someone getting a bad Brazilian wax job whenever a pine is felled. Paper can be recycled, but that’s carbon intensive as well. We’re better off going to reusable totes. Right?

Sorry, Charlie. Let’s go to Los Angeles magazine for guidance here: “Reusable Tote Bags Are the Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled.”

Hmm. Why? Because the bottom of the bags accrues a sticky grot of leaked meat juices and fructose and breeds nasty bugs that give you the gut-rot for two days? Because you always forget them and feel as if you have sinned when you don’t have a sustainable-transport option?

All that, yes, but mostly this: “The production and distribution of single-use plastic bags produces less carbon and other pollution than paper bags, recycled plastic totes, and cotton totes. To achieve the same emissions-per-use ratio as a disposable plastic bag, you’d have to use your cotton tote 131 times just to break even.”

As it happens, I probably have used my Trader Joe’s tote over 132 times, so I’m ahead of the game. I love using their totes, because they’re sturdy, washable, and have interesting designs that tell everyone I am a fascinating person who is socially aware, because, duh, totes! Secretly, I am exulting in the fact that I am doing my part to hasten the end of the planet and no one knows it.

The New York Times had a story headlined “New Yorkers Say They Want to Save the Environment (but They Also Love Their Plastic Bags),” which suggests that they want everyone else to change. How about they just ban plastic bags used by millionaires?

Sorry; won’t do. The only possible way to save the planet is to require everyone to walk home from the market with everything stacked on top of his head like the subject of a 1952 National Geographic story on Africa, or perhaps to pile his goods on a sled made from woven reeds and drag it onto the subway.

The reluctance of New Yorkers to forswear convenience to make a useless gesture ignored by the actual plastic polluters reminded me of another story, which popped up on Vice: “I Love Boston Market’s Mac and Cheese More Than I Hate Capitalism.”

Ordinary folks with a balanced, satisfying life may not grasp the psychic schism the author describes. Let us delve.

“Eating there would run counter to my own ethos of conscious consumerism. . . . I’d campaigned for fair trade coffee and tea at my high school, rocked union-made jeans. . . . I knew ‘ethical consumption’ wouldn’t solve the world’s problems, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to give it my all.”

All the moral capital he accumulated by campaigning for fair-trade tea and rocking jeans made under the watchful eye of collective bargaining can be undone if his fellow collegiate anti-capitalists see him enjoying a humble meal at a chain.

“For four years, my friend Eileen and I would silently slip off campus, not mentioning our plans to anyone, and walk into the red, black, and white restaurant from my childhood.”

It’s like Winston Smith visiting hookers in the proles sector. You can imagine the author and his co-conspirator at the restaurant:

“Did anyone see you?”

“No. But I think my roommate suspects. Ze asked me if I was going on another midnight ride. Like Paul Revere? Didn’t he go to Boston?”

“Could be nothing. But we have to face the fact that this could come out. And then what? You may be rocking a union-made hemp keffiyeh but that won’t be enough.”

“If it comes to that, we hit back, and we hit back hard. We say we saw zir at Chick-fil-A.”

“That’s . . . that’s like the nuclear option. Ze’d be shunned and banned.”

“We have to look out for ourselves,” she said fiercely. “You don’t know these people. They wouldn’t hesitate for a second to photoshop us with straws in our mouths.”

You’re surprised more people don’t hate capitalism. Sneaking around for unethical mac and cheese, shouting “Get thee behind me, Satan” at tote users — it sounds like such a happy way to live.

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Readers write in on Patrick T. Brown's essay on parenting and Jack Fowler's piece on Mark Janus.

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