“The ultimate test of one’s conscience may be the willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard,”—Gaylord Nelson. The wonders of spring are emerging, but they are now unfortunately accompanied by the season of more visible filth and garbage. The primarily plastic refuse is present and visible along so many roads to those who pay attention. I sadly ponder society’s choice to pass on a polluted world to the younger generations. How do we turn this tide of complacency about the abuse of nature and public health? Will younger and future generations ever know a world without extensive litter?
In the 1970s, a public service television commercial was part of a “Keep America Beautiful” campaign that showed the despair felt by a Native American when he observed the littering of the environment. The Chicago Tribune reporter Finis Dunaway uncovered the background of this message in the column “The Crying Indian ad that fooled the environmental movement.” This journalist wrote that “environmental demonstrations (in the time leading up to the first Earth Day) focused on the issue of throwaway containers. All these protests held industry – not consumers – responsible for the proliferation of disposable items that depleted natural resources and created a solid waste crisis.” He further explains that the commercial’s message, supported by the beverage industry, was “People start pollution. People can stop it.” In essence, the corporate world’s effort was to shift the blame to consumers; today, they have not had to shoulder any responsibility for our massive waste problem.
Worldwide, every minute, more than a million plastic bottles are sold, and the ones that end up in the environment will take hundreds of years to decompose. In the meantime, this accumulating waste affects ecosystems and natural balances. Currently, only 30% of the PET plastic bottles used in the United States are recycled. Now, TV commercials by beverage companies are encouraging consumers to recycle these bottles. Thanks to innovative technologies, this type of plastic can be thoroughly reformed, not just down-cycled to less valuable materials. In other words, when PET bottles are chemically recycled, they can be made again into plastic bottles. This is the circular economy model required for the long-term sustainability of materials.
There are many aspects of the plastic waste problem, and chemical recycling is one solution on the horizon. This part requires participation by everyone so that the bottles are returned for recycling. This does not happen unless laws are established, similar to bans on plastic bags and deposits on bottles. Another solution to the plastic waste problem is massive reductions in one-use plastics. Can we make some sacrifices or simple changes that will translate into a better future for our youth?
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work