At the Chicago Cultural Center right now, there’s an exhibit called The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. It was put together by The Institute for Figuring. It’s a collaborative project to crochet a kind of exaggerated, colorful version of a coral reef. Its electric colors and sinuous shapes mimic and celebrate that of a real reef. The knitters’ intention is to call attention to the plight of reefs around the globe, which are endangered by our treatment of the water specifically and of the larger planet itself.
The thing that stuck in my mind the most after the exhibit was a bit of text on one of the explanatory signs on the wall. It was next to a section of the reef made largely from plastic, “The Toxic Reef and the Garbage Patch.”
I’m going to quote from the sign at length. It read, in part:
“As reefs disappear a sinister substitute is growing beneath the waves: In the north Pacific ocean the world’s plastic garbage is accumulating, fifty years of plastic trash building into a vortex that is now twice the size of Texas and more than 30 meters deep.
A ghastly synthetic analog to the Great Barrier Reef, this ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ as it is called, is an aquatic ‘wonder’ of appalling dimensions that accretes year by year. Since the 1950’s plastic production has increased tenfold every decade. In 2003 the average American used 223 pounds of plastic; by 2010 it is estimated we will be using 326 pounds. Americans consume 2.5 million plastic bottles an hour, 22 billion a year. Between us we throw away a hundred billion plastic shopping bags annually; worldwide figures are in the trillions.”
I’m not an expert on plastic, but I understand basically some of the big reasons why it is bad: it never ever ever biodegrades, it hurts animals, it may release carcinogenic substances in its decay, and it’s a petroleum product we use with decadent, careless, wasteful abandon. Plastic, like diamonds, is forever.
But a mass of plastic garbage two times the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean?!? My god!
What more did the sign have to say?
“What can we do? Become aware. As an experiment, try keeping your plastic trash for a week—everything you use—every bottle, bag, wrapping, packaging, and takeout container. A sobering salutary, and disturbing experience.”
Okay. I can do that.
I am going to keep all the plastic I throw out for a week. I need to know how badly I’m doing. And by examining my consumption habits, I hope to be able to see patterns, and consequently to see ways to reduce my environmental footprint.
Today is Sunday. I started at midnight, and I will be keeping all my plastic trash until midnight of next Sunday. So far, I have two disposable coffee lids, two little plastic half-and-half cups and their lids, a little plastic shopping bag, and a granola bar wrapper. Uh oh.
In preparing myself for this challenge, I’ve already started noticing some of my bad consumption habits. I’m tempted to change them right away, but I think this challenge will be both more honest and more useful if I wait until next Sunday to change them. So, my rule for going through this challenge is that I have to do what I normally do, so that my results are as accurate as possible. Of course, any physicist’d tell ya that the mere act of observation will change what you’re trying to observe, but I’ll do the best I can to be true to my usual practices.
Sitting here at the beginning of the week, trying to peer down six and a half more days to the end, I predict that a lot of the plastic trash I generate will be related to food. I don’t shop much ever, but I am notorious for eating on the go. As a very busy nondriver, it’s tricky—if I get off work at five and I’ve got someplace to be at six thirty, it’s just so much easier to grab a cheap dinner at a restaurant on the way than it is to bus it all the way up to my home on the North Side and then to bus back south or west or wherever I need to be and then afterwards to bus it all the way home again. Finding time to cook at home is tricky, and going to a restaurant is all the more tempting because it’s easy to combine eating and social time that way. Not to mention, keeping a decently stocked fridge and pantry as a busy, nondriver, vegetarian living on the Near North Side is, um, not uncomplicated—some days it feels like an Olympic sport.
All that said, though, I’m already sitting here thinking that I’ve got to start carrying canvas bags to the store. And given the frequency with which I consume coffee when I’m out in the world, I really, really need to make the effort to have a re-usable coffee cup with me when I’m buying coffee. But that’s for next week. This week, it all hangs out.
So, wish me luck. I’ll update here about my progress throughout the week as often as I am able. I’ll do a big round-up when I’m done, along with an inventory and some pictures of the carnage I’ve collected.
I encourage you to consider taking the Plastic Week challenge yourself. If you blog your Plastic Week, please let me know here or e-mail me (clairelovesthecity AT gmail) and I will link to your write-up. And even if you’re not comfortable doing your own Plastic Week, please take a look at your habits in the coming days, and think about changes you might be able to make to reduce your impact. I remind you, the Pacific ocean’s got a plastic clot twice the size of Texas and thirty meters deep. We did that, but the good news is that we can make choices that will stop it from getting worse (or at least, slow things down). It’s up to us.
Plastic Week, here I come.
You can learn more about The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, including how to contribute to it, by visiting the project’s page @ The Institute for Figuring website.