From Reusing Tin Foil to Recycling Tons of Plastic by
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Prompted By Recycling

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In Mike Nichols’s wonderful 1967 movie The Graduate, a guest at a party tells the recently graduated Ben, played by Dustin Hoffman, “I want to say one word to you. Just one word … plastics.” Thirty-two years later, Sam Mendes’s film American Beauty features a plastic shopping bag floating in the breeze, making this ubiquitous part of our lives both beautiful and symbolic of how plastic life had become, literally and figuratively.

I remember my grandparents’ version of recycling, best summed up by the saying “waste not want not.”

Sometime in the 1980s, markets abandoned paper bags for plastic. I remember that change well, as I disliked the bags because they easily tipped over in my car, spilling the groceries. I wondered why we needed them. In those days, we just threw them out, although in my gut that felt wrong. The truth is that I was busy raising my kids and didn’t think much about the damage we were doing to the environment and the future for my children’s children.

I remember my grandparents’ version of recycling, best summed up by the saying “waste not want not.”  They patched clothing, turned around collars that had worn out on shirts, passed clothing down from child to child, created new meals from left overs, and reused tin foil. I remember going to the butcher shop with my grandmother to buy a whole chicken hanging by a hook. She selected the one she thought had the most schmaltz (chicken fat) and the butcher wrapped it in paper. Grandma used every bit of that chicken when she cooked. Parts that I would throw away became chicken soup or fried chicken liver.

Most things were packaged in cardboard when I was a kid. And we didn’t have as many things to buy. We shopped for food by walking to neighborhood stores on a daily basis and bought what could be carried home in a paper bag. When I think of the changes in our shopping habits and how our food and consumer goods are packaged since my early childhood, it is shocking. Big supermarkets started to proliferate in the 50s and there were ever increasing amounts of stuff to purchase. By the time I was in high school and my mother had learned to drive, supermarkets were selling 70% of the nation’s groceries. This shift changed so much about the way we shopped, lived, and used increasing quantities of plastic.

I recently heard that less than 10% of the plastic I so carefully sort and place in my building’s recycling is ever actually recycled. Most of it ends up in landfills or in the ocean where it doesn’t decompose. Many of those water bottles, food containers, plastic bags, and even toothbrushes that are part of our daily lives will end up killing marine life by entangling them in plastic or breaking down into microplastics consumed by fish and ultimately by us.

National Geographic reminds us,

“The conveniences plastics offer, however, led to a throw-away culture that reveals the material’s dark side: today, single-use plastics account for 40 % of the plastic produced every year. Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.”

The article goes on to state,

“Plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles species.

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate our marine environments. Whether by errant plastic bags or plastic straws winding their way into gutters or large amounts of mismanaged plastic waste streaming from rapidly growing economies, that’s like dumping one New York City garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day for an entire year!”

It’s only going to get worse. In 1950, we produced 2.3 million tons of it. By 2015, we were up to 448 million tons. That number is projected to double by 2050.

How I long for simpler times before Dustin Hoffman’s character was told the future was in plastics. Why is it necessary for my grandkids’ toys to be entombed in plastic and held in place by dozens of those twisty things? Why must the socks I buy come connected with plastic? While I dutifully wash and recycle as much plastic as I can, there is probably more of it deemed un-recyclable that ends up in my trash. One of my daughters saves tin foil for reuse. I think I will join her in this tiny rebellion over the amount of waste choking our planet.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real, join my Facebook community, and visit my website.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. Thanx Laurie, but so painful to see the photo proof of what plastic waste is doing to marine life and to our planet. And is there fear that recycling is too little too late?

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your evolution of grocery shopping is interesting and telling, Laurie. As are the appalling statistics you quote. We have become a throw-away society! I heard on the news last week that Mattel has asked us to send back our old Barbie dolls so they can reuse the plastic! (I proudly have my original Barbie’s from 1959, but those were first editions, though not in their boxes; I really played with those things and would never send them back.)

    You are right, we MUST do a better job of conserving, reusing, and NOT using plastic, if our planet and its creatures are to survive.

  3. Marian says:

    What a great recap of reuse and the lack of it, Laurie. I had to smile about the tinfoil, because my former in-laws, having lived through the Depression, saved tinfoil, string, and what-not in drawers. Those days are gone, but there is so much more we can do. And I hate those plastic things that hold pairs of socks together!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Marian, I do think more these days about what I toss and what I buy. The pandemic was helpful because I bought much less. But why must Amazon send small things in big boxes with tons of plastic filler?

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    Amen. Reuse, repurpose, recycle, renew. So much is wasted and discarded. “Live simply, that others may simply live.” Stop buying plastic, if you can. Get rid of plastic water bottles. The pictures of the giant ocean gyres of plastic, the beaches, the dumps, the roadsides are chilling. So much needs to change. I hear there is some hope of identifying some bacteria that can break down some of the plastic, but the flood needs to be stemmed. Sorry for the polemic, but I hear you, Laurie.

  5. Suzy says:

    I can relate to everything you said, from walking to the grocery store to being annoyed with all the packaging. Before Covid, Sacramento grocery stores were charging people for bags, and everyone was bringing their own cloth bags. During Covid, stores thought it was more sanitary for them to supply the bags, but I hope now we can go back to cloth bags. I’ve never thought about the plastic that connects socks, but it IS annoying and unnecessary!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      They finally told us where we shop they we can resume bringing our own bags. Before that, we were back to paper or plastic during Covid. I took paper because I assumed it was fine to recycle it. Hope I was right.

  6. Yes, plastic is the bane of our, and the planet’s, existence. My biggest complaint is the overkill in blister packaging for just about everything. Bad for the environment and a real pain to penetrate. And supermarkets and plastic bags: I remarked elsewhere recently that one of the great features of Retrospect is how one person’s memories trigger those in others. I worked as a stocker and bagger in a supermarket when I was 17. Our store was one of three or four owned by a local family, who watched pennies. Everything was bagged in paper; we had plastic bags intended for use for ice cream. We charged two cents. Amazing how the demand declined. That was 55 years ago.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Tom, I could have written a story about that blister packaging. It takes us forever to open most things these days and creates so much waste. Why? So we can be forced to pay more? Sometimes I have to battle with a kitchen scissors and a sharp knife to get to items for our dinner.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    Powerful and informative story, Laurie. I particularly appreciated you reminding us that, at some point in our lives, plastic was seen as a solution, not a problem. Sort of like — only much worse than — when we were told that polyester clothing was so much better than cotton or wool.

    And, yes, also powerful (and disturbing) pictures.

  8. Wonderful recounting — or should I say ‘retrospective’, Laurie. We did have much less stuff to choose from. I’m driven mad by the variety of crap ‘available’ on current supermarket shelves. You really caught the dilemma of recycling with its layered realities. That classic line from The Graduate became much more than a brilliant character flag; it became a harbinger. The marine photos added the [plastic] ribbon on top!

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