Ecocentricity Blog: Life in Plastic

Jul 17, 2018 11:30 AM ET
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Ecocentricity Blog: Life in Plastic

A friend of mine and regular reader of Ecocentricity recently sent me an excellent YouTube video produced by the Kurzgesagt folks (tip-of-the-cap, Chris). Kurzgesagt effectively translates from German to “in a nutshell,” and this merry band puts out one animated video per month, about six to ten minutes in length, that explains something of interest that relates to science. Here’s their YouTube homepage for anyone interested in browsing (apologies if this ruins your productivity for the day).

Chris sent me their most recent posting on plastic pollution. I would suggest taking nine minutes to watch this video, even if that means you don’t bother returning to read the rest of this post. I don’t mind – amazing and mind-enriching video trumps whimsical and half-baked blog post any day.

Rather than give a play-by-play of their video, let me just say why I think this is such a well-done video. Often, environmentalists focus on raising awareness of an issue. It’s an important role, since so many environmental challenges are latent and frequently downplayed. Heck, if you look back through my posts, you’ll probably find a lot of my writing geared towards awareness-raising.

Raising awareness is different from educating, however. A person might be aware of something without understanding it. To be well-educated on a topic, we must be able to see it from multiple viewpoints. We must understand the “why” and “how” of something, not just the “what.”

The Kurzgesagt folks do this so well. In the plastic pollution video, after six minutes of explaining what plastics are and why they present environmental concerns (choking our landfills, breaking down over hundreds of years into tiny pieces, starving aquatic and aviary life, bioaccumulating in us), they ask a perfectly reasonable question.

“Just to make sure, we should completely ban plastics, right?”

In answering their own question, they give a nuanced (and I think correct) response. “It’s complicated.”

Plastics have undoubtedly improved our world in a wide number of respects. For example, in the medical field, plastics have allowed for a vast array of innovations, ranging from films that ensure sterility to the contact lenses in my eyes. In agriculture, plastics can be used to preserve freshness and reduce food waste (though we have a lot further to go on that issue as well). Further, since plastics are so lightweight, we burn fewer fossil fuels to transport plastic packaging than we would for equivalent, heavier packing options.

So what is the balance point between the good that plastic does and the bad? Honestly, I don’t know. But the more educated we can be about plastics, the better. And at the very least, let’s stop it with the plastic straws I mentioned last week.

I’ll wrap up this plastics mini-series next week by talking about where a massive amount of the plastic we throw away ends up. Ever heard of a gyre? Well, you have now. 

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