More Plastic than Fish
May 01, 2019
By Pat Almonrode, member of the MNYS Environmental Stewardship Committee
I read a statistic the other day that, in this age of alarming statistics, stood out as really alarming to me: some have estimated that by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans (by weight). Let that sink in for a minute.
We live in a plastic world. In 2015, around 322 million tons of plastics of all kinds were produced, worldwide. If I’m doing my math correctly, that’s 644 trillion pounds. Plastic has improved human life in untold ways – bringing us everything from the ball-point pen to lifesaving medical devices to something as simple as food wrap, which when you think about it has made a tremendous contribution to overall nutrition and health.
A lot of plastic production is for packaging – estimates are somewhere between 35 and 45% – and much of that packaging isn’t recyclable (think food wrap, again, for instance). So where we can, we need to look for and use alternatives. And one item that is typically not recyclable, but for which there are good alternatives, is the plastic bag.
That’s why my congregation, Saint Peter’s in Manhattan, recently had some reusable shopping bags made. They’re sturdy, roomy, sustainably produced, and they proudly bear the Saint Peter’s Cross. We sell them for $1, and they’re already a big hit with our members.
But even if all of our members bought and used these bags, and never bought another single-use plastic bag ever again, the effect would hardly register. As one author recently put it in Scientific American:
The real problem is that single-use plastic—the very idea of producing plastic items like grocery bags, which we use for an average of 12 minutes but can persist in the environment for half a millennium—is an incredibly reckless abuse of technology. Encouraging individuals to recycle [and reuse, and even replace] more will never solve the problem of a massive production of single-use plastic that should have been avoided in the first place.
The idea of “each of us doing what we can” is just not enough. Changing our behavior, if it’s going to do any good at all, will have to be done on the largest scale possible, a scale large enough to send an effective signal to the market. We have to tell plastic manufacturers that many of their products are not wanted, and we have to do that in a way that shows we mean it – and we have to do it quickly, lest we end up with more plastic than fish in our oceans.
And that, my friends, is where the government must step in. Sometimes “we have the desire to do what is good, but we cannot carry it out. For we do not do the good we want to do; instead, we keep on doing the evil we do not want to do,” to echo Saint Paul in Romans. But we can use regulation to make us – all of us – to make better choices. Perhaps not exactly what Saint Paul had in mind, but still …. And remember, this is not some outside force imposing something on us. We are the government, and this sort of action is government at its best. This is us making ourselves behave better.
And as most of you know, that’s what the NY legislature has done with regard to plastic bags. Beginning next March, stores will not be allowed to provide single-use plastic bags. Individual counties will then have the option of imposing a 5-cent fee on paper bags, as our City Council has already done – all with the goal of encouraging (or forcing, if you prefer) us to bring our own reusable bags.
This is a real example of how government regulation – which, again, is really self-regulation – can work. I am convinced that as Christians, as stewards of this blessed Earth, we have an obligation to make sure the levers of government are used responsibly – to fulfill our promise to, as my favorite offertory prayer says, “dedicate our lives to the care and redemption of all that You have made.” So keep looking for ways and opportunities to influence our legislators to do what needs to be done. Join or support one of the many groups working towards these goals, including those working to bring the voice of faith into this conversation – groups like Interfaith Power & Light, GreenFaith, and Lutherans Restoring Creation. The only way we can do this is, with God’s help, together.