Ours Is The Age Of Plastic, And It Needs To End
The legacy of our time will not be our literary or architectural monuments, but all the plastic trash we leave to poison the seas and choke our future. Fortunately, change is in the air.
BOGOTA — What will survive of us is love, the poet Philip Larkin wrote in 1956. Little did the Englishman know that what would really survive us, plastic, was being invented as he wrote.
The calamitous trail of billions of plastic bags, bottles and containers used since Larkin's time runs so deep and wide, and is so lasting, that it would be no exaggeration to call ours the "Age of Plastic."
This is no metaphor or verbal formula. The International Commission on Stratigraphy has tasked 37 experts with determining whether or not we have entered a new geological age. The question is whether or not the Holocene, which began 11,700 years ago, has given way to the Anthropocene, the first age marked by profound changes to the earth provoked by one species, humans.
Scientists are slowly concluding that we are, indeed, creating (and destroying) a planet in our own likeness. They are placing the origins of the Anthropocene in the 1950s and estimate that traces of plastic — on rocks, in the sea, in the guts of fish and birds — will probably be our most visible footprint.
When viewing the fossils of the Anthropocene, scientists will not find remains of skyscrapers, books or monuments, but pieces of water bottles, shampoo tops and shreds of supermarket check-out bags. The geologists of tomorrow will scratch their heads trying to understand the voracity with which we consume and dispose of substances that take 500 to 1,000 years to decompose. They will read about the five great islands of trash floating in the oceans today, the gathering points of some eight million tons of synthetic material annually.
But they will also note how at some point, humans abandoned their addiction to plastic. When we stopped the nonsense of drinking bottled water when potable tap water was available. Or when supermarkets, shops and drugstores stopped bagging everything, even a single pack of gum, inside plastic. Or when we stopped serving food in styrofoam, another lasting, toxic material, itself carried in plastic bags!
This moment has already arrived in many countries and cities. And it hasn't come from such lukewarm measures as those recently decreed by Colombian Environment Minister Gabriel Vallejo, focused only on teaching, asking and advising people not to use bags. The changes came instead from orders outright banning the most harmful bags (the thin ones) and putting a price on the thicker ones to shift the costs of using plastic bags and packaging onto consumers. That is what the fee of 150 pesos (about 40 cents) proposed by Sen. Antonio Navarro Wolff of the Green Alliance would do. It deserves serious discussion and should be extended to styrofoam.
The age of unfettered plastic use is coming to an end in a good part of Europe, in countries like South Africa and China and in U.S. states like California, where there is a charge for bags. The same should happen in Colombia, so that our legacy to the future is more than just shredded bag remains from our friendly neighborhood supermarket.