Widgets Magazine


Alternative Living…Without the Naked: Experiencing Plastic of Paris

Last Saturday, I sat, quite despondent, in a corner of my room. Around me like a swelling tide pulsed a barrage of plastic bags, crinkling in the breeze. Had this been a film, there would have been angsty indie music drifting across the silent Parisian night, and I would have been wearing copious amounts of eyeliner. Instead, I remained a small and helpless female who, resembling a flightless bird, flapped among the plastic with rising panic.

To some, such as my kindly friends in Paris, I was being but “a really terrible Asian cartoon.” While that comment did invalidate my existence for several minutes, I believe that my despair was rooted in another, more legitimate source.

The fact is: as somebody who had always rejected plastic bags at supermarkets and shops, I would never have accumulated such a collection. Yet here I was, among mountains. Apparently, I had convinced myself along the way that I might have wanted a souvenir of some memorial, with its name printed on a plastic bag. That was bag number one. Plastic bag number two came with the fear of refusing it due to my atrocious French, a reason also the source of my plastic bag number 512. Paris was, apparently, changing me in ways I had never imagined possible.

One cannot, of course, blame the city. Paris is in the process of changing me in other ways, ways not altogether bad. For one, I have begun to eat carrots, a root I have always cowed from because they are orange, and therefore, by some strange association, toxic. I have begun to enjoy cheese and to learn how to read maps. I am now more spontaneous, less afraid of the cold and willing to drink strong cups of coffee in the morning.

Plastic bags, however, are the limit, and, I think, for a good reason: I am a self-declared mildly-crazed environmentalist, and have been for a while. And while demanding fewer plastics is only an infinitesimal part of conserving the environment, the action of accepting a plastic bag at a supermarket draws a highly symbolic line, one that divides action and apathy.

I find it curious that I care so much. Once, I tried to psychoanalyze the relationship between myself and the environment. Maybe I cared because it was too easy not to. Maybe it was just nice to have an apparently selfless goal. Eventually, I realized that while there were many psychological reasons I could pull out of my ecologically-conscious derrière, the facts should be clear to anyone with a bit of common sense. The environmental risk of not caring is exceedingly high, and this is taking low probability, high-destruction scenarios out of the picture.

I am not just speaking from the perspective of someone who grew up in a tropical country where summers are noticeably hotter now, and where mornings provide briefer and briefer respites. Personal comfort is important, and I certainly don’t want to fly back each summer to an inferno of humid doom.

At the same time, there are a bevy of other reasons to be concerned, most of which we have all heard before. The link between climate change and the inequality of its impact is very real, for example, with the poorest being hit the hardest. The increasing cost of adaptation with increasing climatic extremes increases the opportunity costs of any present inaction. And so on.

Climate change, however, is not all that is at stake. What strikes me the hardest is the destruction of natural landscapes and habitats, many of which I have found profoundly moving. I have been dragged around in toboggans in the middle of expansive deserts and hiked for hours on snow-covered mountains. I have stood in the middle of rolling green fields that I can’t imagine changed, and by natural beaches where fat otters slop around and are adorable. Realizing that more than just people and material goods exist is liberating, and needing to protect what gives me that liberation is what sheaths this whole planet conservation thing in urgency.

It is frustrating that my resistance to plastic bags is not taken seriously. I acknowledge that refusing one at Wal-Mart does not exactly make me Captain Planet. Yet refusing one plastic bag reminds me to continue refusing others. It reminds me to recycle, to reuse, to buy less. It even helps me remind other people to start living a little greener.

I am not a hippie. I do not want to live in a tree. I do not overuse the words “soul,” “love,” “spirit” or any combination of the three that might make the average citizen vomit up his or her breakfast (I am, as I will remind you, repressed). But some kind of environmental consciousness, I believe, needs to become a bigger part of everyday culture. If one of my plastic bags saved can play a part of reducing total plastic demand, I will keep doing it, and this will begin again tomorrow.

If I will remind you, even Captain Planet said, with all his dashing cheese, “The power is yours.”

Save the planet with Sam at samtoh@stanford.edu

  • Aidan Dunn

    Being abroad in Chile is having the same effect on me! They don’t recycle anything here, and despite my attempts not to, I also seem to have accumulated an embarrassingly large collection of plastic bags.