This quote from the award winning film, “The Graduate” is a perfect encapsulation of the times—then and now. The scene characterizes the moment in American history, the 50’s and 60’s, in which plastics become intertwined with the definition of “progress”. The Graduate is one of my all time favorite movies. I love the cinematography: the story line of a young man coming of age as the counter culture is brewing; the gender roles clearly defined and expressed, yet oozing with an empowered female sexuality. And, of course, I love the scene in which Hoffman is taken aside and given the secret password to a successful future: “Plastics.” While this likely symbolized entry into adult manhood, today in retrospect, it also represents the line in which material science became dominated by a linear material petrochemical model.
Prior to this historic period, “The Milk Man” delivered and picked up our glass bottles and they were sanitized and reused again and again in a circular model where they was not such thing as “waste.” The plastics industry had to dismantle an entire way of thinking about goods and services. That is not an easy task. Key to the marketing strategy of the 60’s was to make plastics synonymous with the “future.”
Don’t get me wrong, plastics have made life easier and did bring us a lot of innovations that got us to the moon, but, we didn’t think about the dependence on petroleum, and we didn’t think about the effect a linear material cycle would have on the planet and the oceans, and we didn’t think about the fact that individuals and governments would foot the financial and operational burdened of this expensive new thing called, “recycling.”
In the end, “plastics” most certainly have been a lucrative future for many financially speaking. However, plastics are now so abundant of a problem that they can’t be ignored; in fact, plastic objects are projected to replace the number of fish in the ocean by 2050. Ironically, instead of holding the plastics industry and the corporate users accountable for this waste (i.e a sign of poor design), the focus is on the individual to solve this epic problem.
It’s really amazing to me that individuals and governments pay for this, not industry! That is powerful marketing—when the consumer and our public funds are used to pay for a problem individual consumers didn’t create in the first place. We pay for the goods once, consume the goods, and then pay for them again to “get rid of them.” Wow. That’s crazy, and yet it is so normal that we don’t even realize it.
To turn the plastic tide, we need both individual action and systemic change. We need to scale sustainable solutions, not simply put the burden on individuals. We all face choices everyday that come with a climate or a plastics or a clean air cost. It’s just not practical or realistic for all people to live off the grid, eat what they catch or grow, and wear only the clothing we have knitted from scratch. It’s a both/and situation. We all need to do more as individuals to get to zero waste, AND we need to educate ourselves about scalable sustainable solutions; advocate for scalable sustainable innovation; and hold the brands we love accountable to sustainability actions and goals. Further, corporations, small and large, local and global, need to put their research and development budgets to work on scalable sustainable innovation instead of lobbying against regulation. Innovation is the antidote to regulation. It’s where the creativity is too.
Like the plastics industry did in the 60’s, we need to connect sustainability to “progress” and the “future”—not an idealized past where everything is homemade (and a LOT of hard work; remember women were relegated to the kitchen back then and defined by motherhood alone?). Don’t get me wrong, we could all use some cooking, sewing, and making classes to bring meaning and healthy eating habits back into our lives, and to reduce our plastic and carbon footprints.
However, focusing so much on the individual is a distraction from the fact that our global society relies on fossil fuel for energy, plastics, and transport (which accounts for 2/3 of global carbon emissions). Individual change, while important, will not get us to where we need to be in 10 years. We need leadership like we had for the 60’s “moon shot”. Let’s graduate our thinking about progress and the future: “I have one word for you: sustainability. Think about it. There’s a great future in sustainability.”
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