When I was in middle-school in Ecuador, in the late 1950s, it became fashionable among the girls in my class to carry books in transparent plastic bags. Even among the privileged classes--many of my classmates' families owned huge tracts of land and had dozens of servants--plastic was scarce and prestigious.
You know how it is at that age--whatever the cool kids are doing, you want to do it too. We were in the country only temporarily, owned no land and had only one live-in maid (in Ecuador even maids had maids in those days). For months I longed for a clear plastic bag until my father happened to buy a ready-made shirt and let me have the bag it came in.
I thought I was just being cool at the time. I didn't know I was recycling.
The other day I learned that Americans throw away 2,500,000 plastic bottles every hour. Even if some of those are recycled, that is a lot of bottles. So many in fact that, along with assorted debris and contributions from other nations, they are forming big islands of floating garbage in the oceans. UNESCO recently announced its plan to recognize one of these islands as a new state, "Garbage Patch," just to make a point.
A while ago I took stock of the plastic consumption in our house. We didn't use many bottles, and most of those could be recycled. But plastic bags--that's where we sinned. I'm not talking about the occasional bag that we put our groceries in when we forgot to take along the New Yorker canvas tote, but about the dozens of thick plastic freezer bags that I used while carrying out my most earth-friendly endeavor: preserving veggies from my garden.
Every year at harvest time I used to buy several boxes of freezer bags in pint and gallon sizes. And whenever I took spinach or chard or kale out of the freezer, I would throw the bag away, until I realized that there was no reason to. Only veggies blanched in water go into these bags--no oils or grease or meat. Why couldn't I reuse them? I began rinsing the bags thoroughly, drying them, crossing out the old labels, and storing them in a drawer until summer. I've done this for the past year, and we haven't died of botulism yet.
Every few months I make a six loaves of zucchini or rhubarb bread, which I freeze in gallon bags. After I take one of these loaves out of the freezer, I put the empty bag back in, crumbs and all, to await the next batch of bread. The bags stay constantly frozen, and it hasn't done us any harm to reuse them in this way.
Recycling, I often think, is the last moral act left to those of us who who haven't sold all we have to go feed starving babies in Haiti. I try to remember this every time we load up the car with a couple of months' worth of consumerist detritus and make our way over rutted back roads to the nearest dump. I imagine myself on my death bed, looking back on my comfortable and essentially selfish life. And I hope that I'll be able to take consolation from knowing that I did my best not to add to the territory of those floating plastic nations.