The price of progress
How the unintended consequences of progress can adversely offset the benefits
My late Aunt Elsie was at my sister’s wedding in 2011. As I videotaped and photographed the festivities with my iPhone, I asked my ninety-something grand-aunt if she could have imagined such a device when she was young. Or would it have seemed like magic? She chose the latter.
We hear all the time how rapidly technology is changing our world, mostly for the greater good. However, outside of environmentalist circles, Americans rarely discuss how often the unintended consequences of that progress have adversely offset the benefits.
I was born in 1970, just a few months after the first Earth Day. In the ensuing half century, Earth Day celebrations have become more robust, while I have become more rotund.
U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day in response to a rising awareness of how materialism was consuming our national consciousness and natural resources. As the Wisconsin native wrote in the EPA Journal 10 years later, “Americans made it clear that they understood and were deeply concerned over the deterioration of our environment and the mindless dissipation of our resources. That day left a permanent impact on the politics of America.”
The ’70s birthed crucial federal environmental protections that have bettered our air, water and public health ever since. However, it was also the decade when, as presaged in the 1967 film “The Graduate,” the packaging industry ramped up its mass migration to plastic products.
When I was a small child, juice and soda came solely in bottles, and milk came in cardboard cartons from the store — or for my friends who still had a milkman, bottles as well. The supermarket offered only brown paper grocery bags. But in the late ’70s, companies embraced plastic bottles and bags. As opposed to glass, these bottles wouldn’t break. As opposed to paper, the new bags were lighter and stronger. Most importantly to the businesses adopting plastic, the material was cheaper.
In 2019, most people don’t think of plastic as “technology.” But it’s impossible to overstate how much plastic has transformed our society. It’s now the standard packaging for just about everything we buy, and it’s a key component of automobiles, electronics — you name it.
While plastics can provide irreplaceable components for some durable goods, like many of the “advancements” that have helped us save time and money, plastics — especially single-use ones — have a dark side. To maintain “progress,” we need more and more plastic, and both ends of the plastic life cycle are diminishing life on earth.
On the extraction side, plastics have kept us tethered to fossil fuels, even as the United States transitions toward a future powered by renewable energy. Almost all plastics are made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels and the drilling used to obtain those fuels causes a host of environmental and public health issues from polluted air and drinking water to the destruction of animal habitats.
When it comes to disposal, the plastic industry has touted the recyclability of its products for decades. That was never a very good solution, as 91 percent of plastic wasn’t recycled. This tactic is even less viable today, as China has begun refusing Western recyclables over the past two years.
On further review, the convenience of consumer plastics doesn’t outweigh the detriments. We need to go beyond plastic, put wildlife over waste, and use biodegradable or reusable materials. If we don’t, we risk our waterways filling up with floating plastic particles, which choke marine life and taint our drinking water.
In elementary school, our children learn the “3 Rs”: reduce, reuse and recycle. Those words appear in that order for a reason. Reducing plastic is most crucial. That’s why U.S. PIRG, Environment America and other environmental groups are prioritizing legislation that would restrict or ban plastic grocery bags or plastic straws. Reusing plastic is the next best option, given the limitations on recycling in 2019. As you move through the 3 Rs, just as we move through time, there’s a price for progress that we’ve too long ignored. I’m sure my Aunt Elsie couldn’t have imagined the Great Pacific Garbage Patch either.