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The Polymerist

Black Friday — Vote With Your Dollars. Write to Jeff Bezos or Your Representative.

November 27, 2020

Today is what is known as “Black Friday” here in the United States. This is one of the busiest days of the year when it comes to consumer spending and the origin story can be read about here. Black Friday typically means the start of the holiday shopping season. I believe the motives behind people spending money around this time are for the most part good. People are buying gifts for others. There is a sense of doing good for other people. People donate money to charities or work in soup kitchens. We give thanks to what we have and try to do what we can to make things better for others. I think this is our chance to think about the greater good of our society and try to initiate thinking about how we might tackle our plastic problem. I will give you two distinct calls to action here on how we might begin to solve this problem together.

The plastic problem is a nuanced topic and it needs careful consideration because our modern lives depend on the use of plastic to either keep our food fresh, our cars light weight, our computers running, and the stuff we order on Amazon safe. Every year academics invent and publish hundreds of new polymers that could be plastics we use in everyday life. Typically, these new polymers have some amazing properties or come from completely renewable feedstocks. When I was a graduate student I made about 10–12 new types of polymers from semi-renewable feedstocks, but it is likely that none of them will ever get made commercially. It was not that my graduate work was bad, but rather what we have now is so good and so cheap.

Many marketing people at multi-national corporations who make the stuff we buy, which is encased in plastic packaging to keep it safe think that you are cheap. These people think that you are unwilling to spend an additional 2–3 dollars for something that is attempting to be sustainable. If you are trying to choose between jackets for your mother in law please try and pick the brand that is providing a sustainable option. For instance, I am a fan of Patagonia, when you go to their website you get the following statement:

Call to Action 1: Vote With Your Dollars

We have an ability, especially right now, to tell companies as consumers we want more sustainable products options. Companies like Patagonia and Rothys are leading the way where they are trying to convert all of their products to becoming sustainable, but there may be companies this season that are experimenting with some sustainable options that will cost you a little bit more. My ask is that you try and validate these experiments by picking the sustainable product.

Creating a market demand for sustainable products that are either produced from recycled materials or renewable materials is the first step in solving our plastic waste problem. The recycled plastic market is here and it is nascent, but voting with your dollars now will grow it and create more demand for recycled plastics. If the market gets big enough then the recycling we put out to the curb every week will look more like money and less like trash.

Call to Action 2: Write To Jeff Bezos or Your Representative

The second thing you can do is write to Jeff Bezos. Tell him you want Amazon’s packaging to be the most sustainable packaging on the planet. Amazon does work on sustainable packaging as they discuss here. I can save you the click by telling you that their vision is underwhelming.

Let’s think about a typical Amazon package, something my household has received in the last few months. Typically there is a cardboard box, tape holding the box together, the contents of the package, and probably some polyethylene bags holding air to keep things from moving around.

Allie Molinaro writing for Clean Water Action talks about how paper is actually more resource intensive than plastic:

About 10 percent more energy is used to produce a paper bag versus a plastic one, and about 4 times as much water. Although recycled paper can be used it takes even more energy and water to go through the recycling process than virgin material, and the finished product is less durable.

I agree. Allie goes on to further discuss that we should be eliminating single use plastic and paper products from our lives when possible, ideally with shopping bags to start. Once again I agree. I usually take my reusable shopping bag to the store, which is made out of canvas or plastic. One area where elimination of single use plastics is super challenging is in the delivery of packages, which will likely increase this holiday season compared to the same time last year.

Write an email to Amazon customer service demanding more from Amazon on their work in packaging. Tweet at Jeff Bezos. I am asking them to justify that their current packaging solution is the most sustainable option that they can currently provide.

A more extreme approach would be to follow the advice of Yanis Varoufakis and boycott Amazon for a day. I personally do not think it would be effective because there is an absence of communication of what you want Amazon to do and it is hard to correlate a drop in sales or a projected drop in sales on one day due to a planned boycott.

It is easy to take your guilt about having more privilege than others and protest in the streets to make yourself feel better. It is easy to think that boycotting Amazon for a day, a week, or a year will be your contribution to sustainability. It is easy to take reusable grocery bags to a store.

It is hard to write your thoughts out in a letter to your federal representatives or Jeff Bezos. It is hard to educate yourself on the nuances of hard problems and why we can’t just eliminate plastic from our everyday lives or stop pulling oil out of the ground or eliminate world hunger. It is hard to organize, lobby, raise money, and fund research into new technologies that will change how we use and consume plastics. It is hard to pick the expensive shoes made out of 100% recycled plastic on the internet late at night when you are alone and no one can see you.

Consider making the harder choice. Happy shopping!


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Curated long form articles about chemicals, energy, oil and gas, plastics, and thoughts on how to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

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Anthony Maiorana

Anthony Maiorana

Writer of The Polymerist newsletter. Talk to me about chemistry, polymers, plastics, sustainability, climate change, and the future of how we live.

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