Paper or Plastic? Neither!

Dear Friends,

I’ve never been a fan of so-called “free trade” agreements. Written by the purveyors of corporate capitalism and the endless growth paradigm, such agreements inevitably hurt workers, farmers, and the environment.

File photo of a young girl holding plastic bottles she has scavenged, as she walks amidst garbage and plastic bags at the garbage dump in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Image: AP Photo/Ben Curtis, file

Enter the US-Kenya Free Trade Agreement that President Trump and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta are drafting. Not surprisingly, the “deal” is being pushed by Big Oil (Shell, Exxon) and Big Chem (DuPont, Dow). Perhaps surprisingly, the US recycling industry also backs the agreement. Ouch.

Big Oil, Big Chem, and Big Trash will tell you they’re just trying to help. They’ll advertise that they care about poor people, struggling countries, about climate change. I’m not buying it.

Fortunately, Big Badness (let’s go with that for the triumvirate’s collective moniker) has a formidable hurdle to clear: the 2019 Basel Convention. Enacted in 2019 and signed by 187 nations, it prohibits countries not signed on from marketing “mixed, contaminated, or unrecyclable plastic.”

Guess who didn’t sign. The US.

Trump hopes the trade treaty with Kenya provides an end-run around the Basel Convention. There’s no shortage of pushback in Kenya, and some here in the US, too. Quoting Senator Tom Udall (D-NM):

It’s estimated that between 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic are entering the ocean each year. THE OCEAN CLEANUP

“It is outrageous that petrochemical and plastic industries claim the solution to our mounting plastic waste crisis is to produce more disposable plastic. … Requiring these companies to take responsibility for their excessive waste and pollution is the only way we will tackle our colossal plastic waste problem.”

Good start. But Udall doesn’t go far enough. We have to get rid of plastic in all but the most exceptional functions. Yes, our governments need to take action, but so do we as individuals.

Of all the choices Americans are confronted with in the realm of single-use plastics, probably the most iconic is the question asked in grocery store check out lines countless times each day: “Paper or plastic?”

That should never be a difficult choice, although better even than paper is to use your own cloth bags.

For Kathy and me, milk offers another choice. One local dairy (Picket Fence Creamery) uses plastic jugs, the other (Sheeder Cloverleaf Dairy) uses glass jars. We like both farms, but the choice is easy.

For me, years ago, one of the most meaningful impressions about plastic came from an older Ojibwe woman who helped me make a small basket from birch bark and spruce roots. I wrote about the experience in Marcher, Walker, Pilgrim, and quote it here: “Thirty-five years later, I still have that basket. It’s seen continuous use and sits on my desk holding keys, wallet, glasses, and other personal items.

“The basket shows the wear and tear of time but still serves its purpose. Most significantly, its presence is a daily reminder of the sustainability of Indigenous culture. A basket made of plastic lacks both the durability and aesthetic appeal of one made from living beings. It also lacks any spiritual value, and even seems to mock those values. I think of all the ways in which a plastic basket destroys life — extracting oil, refining oil, the factory where it’s made polluting the air and water, the impoverished lives of the factory workers, the emissions from trucks and ships transporting the basket from a sweatshop in southeast Asia to some Walmart in Anywhere, USA.

“No environmental degradation occurred in the production of my basket. The only lives lost were those of two noble trees: a birch and a spruce, whose raw material supplied enough bark and root to make many similarly durable products, whose hollowed trunks provided shelter to generations of mammals, whose decaying bodies fed countless bugs and birds, and whose life force gradually enriched the same soil that had nurtured them while alive.

“Unlike most of what humanity tosses on the garbage heap of rampant consumption, if one day my basket ends up in a landfill, the remaining scraps of birch and spruce will prove an asset to the area’s water and land, not a toxic menace to be covered with dirt and monitored for centuries to come.”

Take a stand for justice and the environment with one fell swoop. Think about each plastic item you use, and do away with as many as possible. Think about what might work instead of that hunk of reconstituted petroleum. What you put in the recycling bin may well end up in Kenya or some other poor country.

Or it may end up in the ocean, in those two massive circles of floating plastic trash called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That abomination covers over 617,000 square miles and weighs more than 43,000 cars. I do not use the word abomination lightly.

Our governments can do better. Each of us can do better. It starts by saying “no” to both paper and plastic — but especially to plastic.



Here’s the line-up:

— Paper or plastic? Neither.
— Joe Biden on climate, pipelines
— Postal Service under attack (with Kimberly Karol, president Iowa Postal Workers Union)
— Canadians take to the trees to stop pipeline
— Saving heirloom seeds (with Kathy Byrnes, Birds & Bees Urban Farm)

(Click here for video of “Saving heirloom seeds”)

Please support the local businesses and non-profits who make this program possible. Click on their logos elsewhere on this site. Visit Story County Veterinary ClinicBold Iowa, and Birds & Bees Urban Farm.

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Ed Fallon