Harry Potter and the Magic of Perspective (or How to Make Plastic Pollution Disappear)

Recently my 8 year-old daughter has been swept up in the Harry Potter novels, like her brother before her.  Seemingly over night, she’s been transformed into a speed reader, scarcely able to put down The Deathly Hallows.  J.K. Rowling’s captivating writing, her lovable and loathsome characters, the weird and wild settings, the daring escapades, the classic battle between good and evil—the series has it all.

I often read Harry Potter with her, and I find I’m enjoying the novels as much as, or more than, I did the first time.

Simultaneously I’m reading—not for pleasure, but for my own edification– a white paper produced for the California Integrated Waste Management Board, entitled, “Optimizing Plastics Use, Recycling and Disposal in California.”   And somehow the two disparate subjects mingled into an exciting revelation for me.

How fantastic would it be to create change by waving a wand, casting a spell?  “Scourgify!” I’d proclaim, and instantly the oceans would be scrubbed of plastic trash. How cool would that be?

I experience no such flights of fancy reading the white paper. It’s full of plain facts about the unique problems plastics and plastic waste pose:

Significant economic externalities are present in the phases of plastics production, use, recycling and disposal. These include litter, marine ecosystem impacts, chemical emissions, and known/unknown health risks.

It’s also full of ideas about how California might address the problems (although of course the problems and proliferation of plastic waste is not the fault of any state).  But clearly it’s squeamish about limiting plastics in any way:

Do not eliminate plastics. Instead, develop management systems to optimize plastics use, recycling and disposal while benefiting from the positives of plastics and minimizing their negatives.

It’s rather dry reading, and frankly depressing.  But I’m not getting sucked in by the white-paper-thinking, because it seems to me that the proposed outdated solutions don’t go nearly far enough, and that’s really a matter of changing perspective.

The white paper for the CIWMB was written in 2003.  It may be a Harry Potter-induced fantasy, but I believe general perceptions about plastics have changed immensely since then. After all, it was just this year that scientists declared that measurements of plastic pollution in the ocean might be many times greater than previously supposed. It was just months ago that L.A. gladly kissed single-use plastic bags goodbye. California, and many other places, are deciding that they will, in fact, eliminate some plastics.

It’s clear to me that in 2003 the CIMWB was already scrabbling desperately for remedies to a plastic problem bounding out of control.  And unfortunately, plastic waste remains a problem that has not been satisfactorily dealt with.

Plastic Trash vs Plastic Recovery Graph

Source: CalRecycle Via: Surfrider Foundation

But perspectives do change over time, and I want to suggest that today we are beginning to recognize that we are in charge, not the plastics industry. It comes down to us. We are in control of the future of plastics, because we can change the extent to which we use them. We can change the status quo, by refusing to accept the externalization of plastic problems–pollution and toxicity– onto our society and environment.

So you see, the wand is in our hands; the spell is on our lips, and we are flipping the table on plastic pollution through the magic of a new perspective.

We are in the catbird seat, solutions are at hand, and we can do all of the following to be rid of the plastics inundation:

  • Recognize that the indiscriminate use of plastics has serious implications for the future
  • Refuse and/or ban single-use disposable plastics
  • Return to reusable and non-toxic packaging (such as glass bottles for beverages)
  • Adopt strategies to get and keep land-based and coastal litter out of waterways and oceans
  • Adopt Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, making the producer responsible for the safety of their products, from sourcing and manufacture to reuse/recycling/disposal
  • Adopt the Precautionary Principle, requiring elimination of undisclosed and/or toxic ingredients in consumer products and packaging

What do you think? Can you think of other ways to exercise our power over plastics?  We want to know!

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