13 January 2007

Rethink that advice, Benjamin

written for Earth Day 2004

The other day two of my youngish co-workers were wondering about my rescue of boxloads of foam packing peanuts that they were about to trash. One asked me if it was the same kind of neurotic pack-rat tendency that has me washing and re-using the foam cups that the cafeteria uses for to-go drinks. "They're disposable!" they said. "That means you throw them away after you use them!"

Bolstered by the chance to smarten up these young'uns (not to mention my desire to avoid the "neurotic pack-rat" label, which fits right in with my use of "young'uns"), I stepped up on the soapbox. And because I didn't want to let this extensive expostulation die after a single rant to only two people, I'm recycling it to you with the hope that you'll pass the idea along, too.

I asked my co-workers whether they were familiar with the phrase "our country's dependence on foreign oil," or the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or the conjecture that our presence in Iraq has more to do with Iraqi oil reserves than human rights or weapons of mass destruction. Of course they were.

What they didn't realize was something that a lot of people either don't know or don't think about: that styrofoam and its offshoots are petroleum-based products. Everything plastic comes from petroleum in some way, and foam products fall into that huge category. Heck, the guy whose "plastics!" career advice to Benjamin in "The Graduate" probably owned stock in Schlumberger.

During my 6-month stint as an Internet consultant to Oil & Gas Journal, I had the dubious thrill of attending conferences dedicated to the wonderful world of crude oil and petrorefineries. Hybrid-driving greenie that I am, I went home every time feeling dirty ... and not just from being in Houston, the city with the worst air quality in the U.S. So I took a good look at my surroundings and habits and realized that my contributions to this overblown industry were about much more than my car's gasoline consumption.

(At these conventions, I also learned why Shrub insists on saying "newkyulur" -- many oil guys do, no matter where they come from or how well educated they are. It seems to be a dis thang, kinda like Bush 41 calling the Iraqi dictator "SADdam" because that [mis]pronunciation is considered pejorative. But I digress...)

I'm not trying to put oil company employees out of work or even to label this industry as badbadbad. But let's face it, our habit of overconsumption and desire for convenience at any cost has to change if we want to leave behind any kind of decent world -- and that starts with recognizing that most petroleum-based products were not created for longevity, be it gasoline, styrofoam, or shrink-wrap.

So the next time you throw away a used-once plastic grocery bag, dry-clean your clothes, use Vaseline, buy a piece of new plastic furniture, opt for packaged over bulk, or accept takeout in a foam container, think about this essay ... and please think again.

Of course, the answer isn't as simple as "don't use plastics," because sometimes there's simply no choice, sometimes the petroleum-based version is actually the least-destructive option, and other materials have environmental impacts of their own.

But at least think about the alternatives -- and about not choosing "new" at all.

As the folks say, recycling begins with re-use.
If everyone reused just one foam roadie cup a week or gave one box of packing peanuts to a friend who's moving instead of throwing it away ...

Yeah, I guess you can call me a pack rat. Just don't equate "green" with "neurotic" unless you're prepared for me to smarten you up, too, young'un.