You can't live a day without plastic, like a grocery sack. Just try it. And who has several centuries to wait for the stuff to decay.

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I’ll never forget what I saw in a dirt-poor, dusty Yemeni mountain village more than a decade ago.

It was plastic bags—the kind city-dwellers have long toted groceries in—and they virtually covered the steeply sloping mountainsides that fell away from the roadway bisecting the village.

I had never before in my life seen such a panoramic expanse of plastic refuse, which in my own country, the US, is generally rendered mostly invisible when buried at landfills.

But the Yemeni atrocity wasn’t the only appalling plastic pollution I had seen. My wife and I were visiting Yemen in the southern Arabian peninsula because it was conveniently close to where we were living and working at the time: Saudi Arabia. And that desert kingdom was then experiencing its own explosion of plastic waste.

The kingdom had not yet developed an anti-litterbug ethos, such as the United States started nurturing in the 1960s—a movement captured memorably in the 1970 “Keep American Beautiful” campaign featuring an American Indian shedding a single tear over the environmental degradation caused by “litter.”

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Before that highly successful campaign, Americans routinely threw bags of fast-food leftovers and trash, and all manner of other garbage, out their car windows.

Without one iota of shame.

Fences covered with grocery bags

So, when my wife and I were living in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and later in the 2000s, Saudis were still, with cheerful and casual indifference, tossing trash out their car windows (the imported city workers would clean it up, Saudis said). Plastic grocery sacks, in particular, became a hideous blight on the pristine, primeval landscape.

I remember driving between two Saudi cities one day past many miles of chain-link fencing that had been erected to keep camels from straying onto roadways. There was such an abundance of plastic bags wind-stuck in the fences that the entire fence line fluttered in the breeze on both sides of the highway.

I thought at the time that, even if Saudis had suddenly got religious about combatting their litter problem, it seemed impossible that all those seemingly billions of bags already entangled in fences could actually be collected.

The proliferation of plastic bags, if not aggressively controlled from the get-go, will expand exponentially it seems.

And that’s just one kind of plastic, of which there are literally endless kinds.

‘Trying to live a day without plastic’

I’m recalling these trashy experiences after reading an eye-opening New York Times feature titled “Trying to live a day without plastic.”

The gist of the essay is that you really can’t survive a day without plastic, unless you’re a certified obsessive-compulsive and have nothing else to do besides avoid those petroleum end-products.

A.J. Jacobs, the article’s author, explained:

Since its invention more than a century ago, plastic has crept into every aspect of our lives. It’s hard to go even a few minutes without touching this durable, lightweight, wildly versatile substance. Plastic has made possible thousands of modern conveniences, but it has come with downsides, especially for the environment. Last week, in a 24-hour experiment, I tried to live without it altogether in an effort to see what plastic stuff we can’t do without and what we may be able to give up.

Jacobs almost immediately learned that going plastic-free in a modern environment was a fool’s errand:

On the morning of the day I had decided to go without using plastic products—or even touching plastic—I opened my eyes and put my bare feet on the carpet. Which is made of nylon, a type of plastic. I was roughly 10 seconds into my experiment, and I had already committed a violation.

It got worse from there.

Forget about using your smartphone

He couldn’t even use his phone (iPhones contain plastic). Or enter his home bathroom (the doorknobs are plastic coated). Not even use his toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, liquid soap, or deodorant (“all of which were encased in plastic or made of plastic”). Just selecting a pair of pants posed a problem (“there was plastic lurking in the zipper tape, the internal waistband, woven label, pocketing and threads”). And forget about band-aids (also made of plastic). And paying for anything you buy is problematic for the plastic-free (paper currency has plastic security strips, and credit cards, well, everyone knows what they’re made of).

Every molecule of plastic produced since 1907 is still present in the environment.

Monetary coins, being metal, are fine. But lugging around anything more than a few dollars worth would be an exercise in exhausting futility. Ironically, the Saudis, which I mentioned earlier, originally only had metal-coin currency, but it proved impossible for Islamic pilgrims—Hajis—to physically drag around enough coins to pay for their sacred visits to the holy city of Mecca. So, paper money (which today has plastic security strips) was instituted.

All this is not to say that plastic is all bad. It can even be environmentally friendly. As Jacobs points out, “Plastic airplane parts are lighter than metal ones, which mean less fuel and lower CO₂ emissions. Solar panels and wind turbines have plastic parts.” And, of course, hugely beneficial high-tech computer and medical devices commonly contain plastic.

Waiting for plastic to decay

Nonetheless, the world—on land and sea, and in the air—is becoming overwhelmed by the stuff, which, in the case of petroleum-based plastics, can take centuries in landfills to degrade (they don’t decompose as plant-based plastics do) if at a somewhat faster pace in oceans.

Part of the problem is less the indestructibility of petroleum plastics but more the gigantic volume of the stuff piling up on planet Earth.

According to a United Nations report, the world each year produces some 400 million metric tons of plastic waste, about half thrown out after a single use, and more than 11 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the world’s oceans annually, “leaching into the water, disrupting the food chain and choking marine life,” a Pew Charitable Trusts study found.

And it certainly won’t go away by itself.

The Howstuffworks website explains:

Plastic isn’t a material that decomposes but must be recycled. Instead, plastic tends to break down into smaller particles until they are too small to be seen. This means that every molecule of plastic produced since 1907 is still present in the environment.

If things go on as they have been, eventually we might be unable to see the mountainsides of Yemen or the camel fences of Arabia for the plastic.

And landfills everywhere will be even more stuffed with inert plastics than they already are.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...