Toxic Convenience: Sea Turtles, Saran Wrap, & Consumerism

Mara Strobel-Lanka
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Everytime I open my Facebook timeline, there is another damn turtle video. You know the one. Agonized sea turtle, eyes pinched with fear as an eight-inch straw is extracted from its nose and a dutiful iPhone 7 pushed in its face. I’ve watched it, you’ve watched it, and we’ve both pressed the distressed emoji and kept scrolling. Because the video is horrid, but no longer surprising. It lost its shock value somewhere between the BP oil spill and the American exit from the Paris Climate Accord. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s not that we’re immune to the horrors of the world, it’s just that we can’t stand to watch another bloody animal video spelling out our anxious inner premonition that we are so thoroughly screwed.

While that viral video has over 11 million views, Americans are still using over 500 million straws every day. American plastic consumption has replaced mindful household rituals with disposable solutions. We buy our food wrapped in plastic; we put our leftovers in plastic, and then we throw the plastic waste in a plastic bag we bought just to hold all the plastic. We do it because it’s already there waiting for us on the supermarket shelf, and who doesn’t love a personal cup of organic greek yogurt?? Besides, we can’t see the 33.6 million pounds of trash filling American landfills every year, so surely the problem can’t be that bad. Except that we can see it (ex: turtle), and it is that bad (ex: turtle).

It’s everywhere — from the Texas-sized garbage island floating in the Pacific, to the banks of my local St. John’s River. We can’t step out our front doors without trampling discarded bottles, soda lids, and bags. We can’t take a hike at a State Park without stepping over handfuls of Evian caps and Clif bar wrappers, even in the most remote of spaces. We can’t drive on the highway without seeing miles, piles, and landfills of plastic wrapped waste. And we certainly can’t open up social media without getting assaulted by visions of our exclusively human failures (ex: turtle). Every single piece of plastic ever made still exists, and it’s not going anywhere for one to five thousand years, when it will eventually break down to its original chemicals and seep into our precious ground. So why are we still using it?

The rather unsettling answer to that question is that while a small percentage of the world is making a good deal of money off our plastic intake, the rest of us are just too settled into the corporate constructed consumption that keeps compelling us to buy more crap (plastic crap). How did we get here? We’re good, honest, American people after all — so how did we bury our prized new world in so much waste? I have my own Orwellian conspiracies. Putting those aside, I’d like to take a gander and say that throwing away half of what we touch every day hasn’t exactly coerced us to be good stewards of our planet or our homes. The conveniences of cheap, disposable packaging and production have not only littered our planet; they’ve cluttered our lives and values with so much immaterial materialism that we can no longer process the severity of our missteps long enough to turn down the next to-go latte order.

The industrialized world that you and I grew up in has allowed us so many luxuries inside a “Convenience is King” landscape, that we are physically and mentally separated from both the Earth and our place in it. Globally, more of us now live in urban areas than rural areas, a shift that’s caused the majority of the human race to evolve inside an estranged world engineered to meet demands which we cannot sustain. You and I have both seen the power points: the earth is x years old, we’ve been here for y minutes, and we’ve jeopardized the entire rest of the alphabet. The globe is warming, species are going extinct, and the leader of the Free World is investing in coal. But this is old news. Like the turtle video, it arouses in all of us a sort of resigned mourning: we’ll handle this later — when we have the opportune science, urgency, and leadership.

This attitude has alienated us so thoroughly from the planet that birthed us, that we no longer associate its health, with our own — and the cost is staggering. We not only pay in dollars for the sickening amounts of packaging and short-lived household items (razors, deodorant sticks, toothbrushes, polyester clothing, etc.), we pay in BPA poisoning, littered oceans, and annoyingly poignant turtle videos. Every day that we wait for a vigilante scientist to right our many, superfluous wrongs, we only contribute more time and to-go boxes to a ticking time bomb of pollution. All the while, we humans are aimlessly disconnected from the ceremonies that once surrounded our everyday lives.

More and more, we choose to be sold a plastic wrapped solution rather than to make one ourselves. Whether it’s a recipe for toothpaste, a cleaning wipe, or the food we nourish ourselves with, the tasks of our well-being have been outsourced to companies that do not care about our health, or the planet’s. Disposable paper towels and saran wrap may have saved us our precious time, they have also cost us the ownership of our simplest prosperities. We continue to proudly lug recycling bins full of Chobani tubs to the corner, only to pledge more and more money to the corporate monsters of man-made polymers.

As society has hidden behind the feeble efforts of recycling to fix the plethora of problems caused by a simple matter of overconsumption, we’ve done anything but confront the most basic solution: stop buying so much plastic stuff. Maybe we are just too psychologically conditioned to the material world to downsize our consumerism, or maybe the corporate polluters are lobbying our news outlets to mislead the public about the severity of the pollution problem. Either way, there is no longer time for us to wait condescendingly for the science community to put a bandaid on the sickness we’ve inflicted on our planet. If we don’t put our own lives under the magnifying glass for inspection, we will effectively shop until we drop.

I’ve written this before. I’ve experienced more and less passionate phases of environmental activism/outrage, my earthly wokeness waxing and waning above a hectic political climate. And I’m tired — we all are. We could easily avert our eyes from the from the turtle videos, littered waterways, and overflowing landfills to keep buying boxes of plastic bags, drinking from one-use straws, and shopping for a plastic wrapped status-quo. It would be mighty convenient. But is that what humans are for? Our proudly resourceful opposable thumbs and ambitious craniums are surely destined to be more than just self-aware of our converse global supremacy and parasitic presence on planet earth. We’re capable of more than recycling bins and reusable bags, and our elusive environmental atonement is just on the other side of an upsetting turtle video and some modest inconveniences.

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