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Grassroots Transformation: A Christian Response to Pollution From Discarded Plastic

by Victor Díaz

Colleen, a recent graduate from Purdue University, is a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego

Because Pope Francis composed such a beautiful discourse on our common home in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si,  I will interlace his writings and mine in the piece that follows. His both tender and impassioned reflections cannot be overstated nor circulated enough.

“The continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet is coupled today with a more intensified pace of life and work which might be called ‘rapidification.’ Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity.” (Chapter 1, Paragraph 18)

We should really give resounding thanks that oil-based plastic, as a multi-variety polymer and as a multi-use product, was not created much earlier than the late 19th century. Although today’s current circumstances remain dire and demand our earnest attention, there certainly seems to be some kind of nuanced providence within this specific timeline of humankind – that plastic, as lastingly transformative as it has been, only entered as a character relatively recently. As National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic? series reported recently, we have only 9.2 billion tons of plastic to manage, of which 6.9 billion tons have already been deemed as waste. A researcher at the University of Georgia, Jenna Jambeck, tells us to imagine this: five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, resting on every single foot of coastline in the world. This would amount to 8.8 million tons, her conservative estimate for the quantity of plastic that the oceans alone receive from us each year.

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.” (Chapter 1, Paragraph 21)

In my opinion, one of the primary issues that serves as part of the foundation for our world’s monstrous plastic problem is the language that we employ to talk about waste: “throw it away,” “toss it out.” A moment taken to pause, and perhaps an introductory lesson in chemist Lavoisier’s law of conservation of mass, easily demonstrate to us that “away” and “out” are indeed not words that correctly depict what we do when we send an item to the trash. It may sound silly or petty, but I think that granting our waste, plastic and otherwise, this misleading diction perpetuates the disconnect we have from the waste we produce. If we are truthful with ourselves, we might be able to admit that nary a thought is devoted to considering where this plastic fork or that plastic water bottle eventually lands after it leaves our hand. At this moment, I do not have another suggestion to make that could replace our usage of “away” and “out,” but I would like to urge all of us to ruminate upon the deceptions that “away” and “out” continually bolster. Although it consistently exits our homes, worksites, and headspaces, our trash never exactly goes “away” or “out.” It simply relocates and sometimes changes form.

“We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behavior patterns, and the ways it grasps reality.” (Chapter 4, Paragraph 139)

Increasingly, we are learning that our plastic trash relocates to a variety of places, wreaking toxic havoc in all of them. Nearly daily, a new finding about plastic’s damaging impacts related to water becomes accessible via numerous news outlets. Just today, I read a freshly-completed study that dismally recounted its discovery that its 102 sea turtle specimens, dwelling in three different oceans, all had plastics in their digestive systems.

“The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.” (Chapter 2, Paragraph 83)

Maybe you have also encountered the slew of articles describing sea turtles and other creatures (e.g., whales, gulls) ingesting plastic after mistaking it for food and suffocating or suffering disfigurement due to plastic’s unforgiving grip. It could be said that the anti-plastic poster child of this age, the image most frequently conjured when we evaluate our plastic consumption, is that of the sea turtle with a trail of blood pouring from his nostril as researchers remove a plastic straw lodged in his nasal cavity. Since the video recording of this event went viral on the Internet, my observation has been that a sizeable sum of individuals has reached the conclusion that the plastic straw is the unassisted, mightiest evildoer nature has ever battled – and sea turtles are always its prey. Moreover, because the plastic straw is the antithesis of the health and conservation of marine life, many have committed themselves to utilizing reusable straws, if they choose to use one at all, instead of those of the single-use plastic type. While this conclusion could be considered partially true and genuinely applauded for its effort to eliminate plastic straws as a threat, its scope is unfairly limited.

“We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people … Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (Chapter 2, Paragraph 92)

A more thorough analysis of our well-ingrained, plastic-involved habits reveals that it is not only sea turtles and the other seafaring news sensations that are deeply troubled by our excessive plastics, nor is it only plastic straws that are inflicting the damage. Rather, close to 700 distinct species, including already endangered ones, have been identified as victims of plastic’s pervasive, global dominion. On top of that, our concern should expand to include the land as well as the seas (and more accurately, all waterways). The United States is projected to run out of space in landfills in less than 20 years, but the amount of waste – largely comprised of plastic materials – that we send to landfills is still rising. In less developed parts of the world, namely in densely populated urban areas, lack of infrastructure and space alike combine to make the dilemma of managing tons of plastic waste even more grave. And these tons of plastic waste? Unfortunately, they are made up of much, much more than solely plastic straws.

“Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.” (Chapter 4, Paragraph 159)

When we broaden our understanding of plastic pollution to include more than just sea turtles and the seas, and justplastic straws, we allow room for microplastics as well. Microplastics are the tiny pieces of plastic that have broken down so extensively that they are difficult to see, and they originate from all kinds of plastic items – plastic bottles, containers, bags, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, laundry baskets, food wrappers, synthetic clothing, the plastic beads used in health and beauty products, manufacturing waste. One setting in which microplastics have been discovered is on human dinner plates. When marine animals inadvertently consume these microplastics, also laced with other harmful compounds, they eventually move up through the food chain and reach our stomachs when we eat fish. One recent study found that of 18 sampled species, all inhabiting North America’s Great Lakes and each a part of the food chain that brings seafood to our tables, every one had been swallowing massive amounts of microplastics. For many, including myself, the fact that the ubiquity of plastic pollution includes the Great Lakes may bring the magnitude of the issue closer to home than the mind-boggling vastness of “the polluted oceans” does. Our plastics are everywhere.

“Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.” (Chapter 6, Paragraph 205)

What can and should we do to address all of this plastic-induced distress? While corporate accountability and responsibility are important (those profits can certainly fuel innovation labs focused on alternatives to single-use plastics), and although the situation is desperate, I am writing as and for a Catholic Worker. I still hold tightly to the energizing premise of “gentle personalism.” The steps that we as individuals can take should begin with intentional contemplation and continue with thoughtful, but patience-laden, actions. Only a short while ago in our history, we lived in a world that did not know a thing about throwaway plastic – and while this world can exist again, it will not materialize immediately. Above all, the result of our consideration of plastic pollution should be conscientiousness that increases over time, but not according to any defined rate. In turn, substitutions for plastics will naturally accompany our reflections, according to our economic means and restrictions on time. Pope Francis knew this when he wrote [in Chapter 6, Paragraph 211]: “There is nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper … All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings.

Piece by piece, conversation by conversation, little daily action by little daily action, we can creatively, personally dismantle the notion that our world is disposable by ceasing to litter its every surface with disposable plastics. May zeal and gratitude join us on this journey.

Actionable Suggestions:

  1. 1. Here at the Houston Catholic Worker, we have begun to use Dizolve laundry detergent strips, which keep us from using sandwich-size plastic bags to partition powdered laundry soap or from buying plastic jugs of liquid laundry detergent. Initial skepticism from both guests and staff has “dissolved” into firm endorsement!
  2. Ditch the plastic water bottles (and the associated cost), and invest in a sturdy reusable bottle.
  3. Use bar soap instead of liquid soap, since liquid soap comes in a plastic container.
  4. Store metal cutlery in your bag so you can avoid plastic silverware when out of the house.
  5. Utilize reusable bags for your groceries, and avoid using plastic produce bags, since you will probably wash your produce anyway!
  6. If you are eating out, bring your own container to serve as a doggy-bag, since many restaurants will otherwise send your leftovers home in styrofoam (a form of plastic).
  7. If possible, purchase food like rice, pasta, and nuts from bulk bins, using a reusable bag or container. If not possible, choose cardboard packaging over plastic bottles and bags when surveying your foodstuff options.
  8. As your resources allow, engage in more change-provoking research. There are a multitude of additional ways to remove plastic from your daily happenings, ¡poco a poco!

9.Empower the people around you to reduce plastic pollution by first initiating discussions that reinforce the significance of personalism on this matter – our small, everyday resolutions to do better are of tremendous value!


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, January-March 2019