My Plastic Mountain

It’s strange to be throwing plastic away again. I’m still not used to unwrapping cellophane from new magazines and tossing it into the trash, or putting empty medicine bottles into the recycling bin. As I expected, it’s a huge relief. It is so nice to no longer be hoarding plastic. Yet there’s a twinge of guilt whenever I throw a bit of plastic away.

After a year of collecting every piece of plastic I’ve used, I have a clearer understanding of how much waste I produce. I’ve had a chance to see my life’s habits and choices on a macro level, and it has shifted my perspective seismically.

The weekend after Earth Day, on April 23rd, I gathered together all of the plastic I accumulated over the past year. I stacked the rubber bins and the cardboard boxes and the stuffed paper sacks in the front room of my apartment, and then I stood back and marveled.

Here’s a photo of the mountain of plastic I created in a single year of life:

What I have to remind myself is that, to some people, this may not look like a lot of plastic. Yes, it fills a full room, but it’s not a really astonishing amount. It doesn’t soar to the ceiling, and it’s surprisingly light. I carried this entire haul up from my apartment’s storage unit in three easy trips. But this mini mountain of plastic is what I accumulated in a year of trying hard not to use any at all.

This is what has really powerfully shifted my perspective. Over the past year, I actively told store clerks and grocery staff and waiters and waitresses that I was trying to make purchases or order meals without the use of plastic, so I greatly cut down what I normally would have been given. I’m curious now to see how much I would have collected had I not tried to steer clear of plastic. Double this amount? Triple?
It’s impossible to say, and my days of keeping, cleaning, and storing plastic for experimental value are over. When I stand back and stare at this load, it alarms me.

In the past few weeks, I’ve begun the process of sorting and cataloging my plastic, and this, too, has been eye-opening. The amount of plastic cups, straws, windowed envelopes, plastic sleeves, and especially to-go boxes, seem to multiply as I pour them out of various bins and bags like items pulled and pulled from Mary Poppins’s magic suitcase.

I will be sharing some of those final counts in coming posts. For now, when I look at this mountain of plastic, I think of all of the people in America. In the world. I think of my small year’s cache of plastic  floating in the ocean, and it isn’t hard to visualize the scale of what must be out there, and growing.
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