Consumers in a Problematic World 9/21/19

Opinion by Richard Bleil

Apparently, California is passing a law to ban single-use plastics. Frankly, I don’t see how this will work. For example, I drink Diet Coke. It’s not good for me, but I don’t like coffee and tea, at least good tea, is not easy to find when you’re at conferences or on the road. So, I’ll drink one Diet Coke in the morning as my caffeine fix. But, I recognize that the plastic bottle is sturdy enough that, once the Diet Coke is gone, I use the bottle as a water bottle for the rest of the day. Then, at the end of the day, I put the bottle in the recycling bin. So, is this a one-use plastic bottle, or not?

The reality is that consumers love to find corporations to blame for our ecological woes, but rarely do we look at ourselves to see how consumer demand and practices contribute. The reality is that it’s the American consumer that has given rise to the one-time use plastic problem. When I grew up, tap water was fine. It, seriously, was all we had, save the bottle of flat tasting distilled water mom kept in a jug for the ironing. If you were thirsty, you grabbed a glass (yes, a reusable, real, breakable glass) and grabbed tap water to satiate your thirst. Then glass became bad, because it can break.

Well of COURSE glass can break. That’s why you learned to treat it as…ready for this?…breakable.

In a high school civics class, the teacher commented that you can put anything in a bottle, and somebody will buy it. My friends and I joked about putting water in a bottle, and selling it for a dollar a bottle.

…and we’d LAUUUUGGGHHH…

Imagine my surprise when pop manufacturers began selling water. I thought surely it’s a fad; basically they’re selling water, and don’t even have to add the other ingredients to make it pop. And what’s more, it cost the SAME as a bottle of pop, for LESS work by the company! Imagine my surprise when the sales of bottled water EXPLODED. It seemed like everybody was getting into the bottled water gig, and you started finding all kinds of companies selling natural water, spring water, water that was passed over rocks, and some that barely even told you where the water was from.

Chemists got involved and started looking at this water, only to discover that the water was disgusting from a health perspective. There were almost no regulations on the water. The producers could get away with just filtering it so there were no mollusks in the bottles, but chemical waste, unhealthy microbes, fish feces, basically anything big enough to get through the filter went right into the bottle.

But that certainly didn’t slow down the craze. Now there are regulations about purity and testing and the bottled water is better. Sales continued to soar higher and higher, including a free wasteful plastic bottle with each purchase. Oh, the companies started trying to be a little bit more ecologically friendly; they started using thinner plastic and smaller caps which SHOULD help with the plastic waste problem, but not as much as it should. The only effect this had was to make the bottle too flimsy for reuse anyway, but, the consumers (remember them?) didn’t care. They only threw the bottle out anyway. Some of them would recycle, but again, it was treated as a single use disposable container.

Disposable means simply cheap. Something that is disposable is cheaper to make (thanks to mass manufacturing techniques) than it is to clean and reuse. But, it wasn’t breakable glass, the consumer didn’t have to clean it (thank GOD), they could just throw it away and the bottled water only costs a little bit more than regular pop with ingredients and blending and carbonation involved.

A friend of mine periodically invites me to dinner. The whole family is very sweet, and they’re good friends, and highly health conscious. I usually bring a bottle of Diet Coke with me, and when their kids ask me what it is, out of respect for their life style, I always reply “poison”. Naturally they ask me why, then, I’m drinking it, and I really have no good answer. But, once the pop is gone, true to MY nature, I refill the bottle with their tap water. They have a water filtration device for their drinking water, but, again, the materials in the filtration system have to be eventually disposed of, so it’s better than bottled water, but still has waste. Me? I grew up on tap water, I worked as a water treatment chemist so I know how it’s handled and made safe, so it’s good enough for me. My friend then gives me grief for drinking tap water instead of their filtered water. The other day she posted a photo from a grocery store that put up a sign saying, in essence, that they will no longer sell bottled water, but their customers are welcome to bring in their own containers and fill it here, at this station, with…DUN Dun duuuunnnn…TAP WATER!

Yes, friends, we, you and I, get to share the blame every time an ecological disaster hits because some company overproduces something. Right now the bees are in grave peril (meaning we are as well) because of a chemical company that overproduced some pesticide that is threatening them. Yes, blame the company. Maybe they should have known. But it’s the food producers who are also to blame for using this new product too heavily too quickly either because of its cost or efficacy or both, and it’s the food CONSUMERS (that’s you and me) to blame, because we insist that our foods look good, don’t have little holes, is plentiful AND CHEAP. Finding one person to blame feels better than taking part of the responsibility ourselves, but it’s also incredibly short-sighted.

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