I hate plastic. It is undeniably useful, certainly cheap, and unfortunately ubiquitous. Plastic is everywhere. Stores are filled with cheap plastic junk, and if it’s not cheap enough you can go online with Ali Express and find it even cheaper. Hence we are drowning in a tsunami of cheap plastic. The problem with plastic is that it never goes away. It is simply bad news, made worse by its abundance.
On the weekend I was in one of those downtown Oakville stores filled with potpourri, and candles and inspirational plaques. A book in the store pinpointed that our household storage for things like rice or coffee, are most likely cheap plastic. The author thought everything in our homes should be beautiful and made of natural materials like paper, wood, stone, and ceramic. She pointed out how beautifully crafted items got downgraded to cheap, fast, and dirty in the course of one generation. Easy in and easy out.
Except that there is no easy out. The big problem is that resins don’t rot in a land fill, so they need to be recycled. Ferreting out which plastic can be recycled, relies on cheap labour sorting through conveyer belts of garbage, OR expensive scanning equipment to do the same. At some point it has to pay or nobody will do it. So for years, we relied on China, manufacturing hub of the world, to take in the world’s garbage and sort through what could be melted down and reformulated into ever more cheap stuff.
That all came to a crashing halt when in 2019 China got its back up and refused to take our garbage. They told the world to where to stick it, or more exactly they left us to figure it out. We had to scurry to find others to take our refuse. Philippines started to send our garbage back. At home, we were having a hard time digging enough holes to bury plastic we don’t want that will never rot away. It will just stay there hidden like dirt under the rug until it is all just too much.
There’s a roadside store on highway six that we’ve driven past a million times. It screams its presence by the psychedelic mandala painted on the side of the building, signalling who might want to shop there. I just assumed it was a thinly veiled shout out to drivers who wanted to grab a bag of formerly illegal substances on their way to the family picnic. Finally curiosity got the better of us and we pulled over. The store was not selling pot, but clay pots - for your garden, made cheap in places like Mexico and Bolivia. The multi coloured bisque wear and earthen ware was a bit gaudy, but also harkened to the kind of local economy where the makers feel compelled to decorate. They want to surround themselves with colourful happy items, hence they are poor but also rich in ways we don’t figure in North America. They do not consider decoration as time badly spent. We bought some earthenware pots and took them home. My wife couldn’t decide what to put in them, but they looked nice just the same. They LOOKED hand made and that is the point. You wouldn’t put out a piece of plastic on display which makes me ask - if it’s so ugly why do we keep buying it?
As a society, we need to remember that beauty is good, whereas cheap and fast have hidden consequences we will come to regret. Most people in North America look down on those who would take the time for handicraft, otherwise known as third world labour. But creating anything, is a self enriching scheme. You make the world a better place when you make something, and its beauty rubs off. I don’t do it often enough, except to know that anything I have made or built has left me feeling unstressed and inexplicably happy.
You might even end up with better and more durable stuff. We had a cheap wire shoe rack behind the door in the laundry room that finally collapsed under the weight of three girls’ off season footwear. There was nowhere to put all the shoes. When my wife went away this summer, it was one of the small fixes I took on. I built a shoe peg board from a big sheet of maple plywood and a bunch of shaker pegs. It’s still hidden behind the door, but it has not collapsed. The wood is standing up better than the wire did, and certainly looks better.
Plastic never made anyone rejoice at its beauty. It’s something to think about, as we navigate through our misbegotten world of cheap fast and ugly. Maybe it’s time we figured out the true cost of cheap over the course of a generation. Yeah, I know. reduce, reuse, recycle. Or how about just plain old do it yourself to solve all three?