Plastics, Renewables and Generational Responsibility

By David Miron-Wapner*

Remember the classic advice given to Benjamin Braddock in The GraduatePlastics.  That industrial wave was still building in 1967, gathering momentum from innovative new applications, production processes and technologies. Among the few who might have envisioned a 2011 snapshot filled with bottles, bags, and plastic bric a brac, might have been that anonymous early adaptor, plastics entrepreneur who offered the advice to Dustin Hoffman as a clean tech entrepreneur today might suggest to today’s graduate – CleanTech.

plastic-bagI wonder if either our circa ’67 plastics entrepreneur or the most ardent environmentalist of the time could have envisioned some of the far reaching consequences of realizing the ubiquity of plastics.  Maybe the mountains of trash on land, but whose wildest imagination could have conceived the enormous floating continental size dead zone of waste known as the Pacific Garbage Patch. The costs of dealing with actions taken earlier by others is imposed on us, just as we continue to impose the costs of our actions on future generations. Even though significant portions of public budgets are allocated to deal with solid and hazardous waste treatment, recycling, etc. the problems seem to multiply before our eyes.

Not only because of their common source in oil, the ubiquity of plastic should be seen as a complement to the global addiction to fossil fuels. At Passover we are challenged to tell the story of bondage as if we ourselves had been there. The truth is that by long being willing slaves to gas guzzling transport, we have ceded power to dictators, autocrats and terrorists, along with their ‘co-conspirators’ the global oil & gas companies.

Passover is primarily a collective holiday, alongside encouraging personal reflection. It sees all who celebrate as stakeholders in the cycle of liberation and accountability. From the crucible of the desert a new consciousness is forged. In the generation-to-generation telling there is a renewal of awareness, a key element of which must relate to environmental values. These must guide our actions, first and foremost as an expression of our commitment to the generations to come who too will tell the story to their children.

As part of my personal preparation for the Passover holiday and its celebration of liberation that is resonating so strongly in modern Egypt, I have thought deeply about inter-generational justice. We must seek to be also free of paying for the actions of our ancestors by embracing now the principle of full accountability. Others broke the bonds so we could be free. Each one of us must take responsibility for his or her actions to break the chain of causation in relation to generations to come. Whether that is possible if we continue to be active and willing participants in modern consumer society poses a daunting challenge on a very personal level, especially as ad induced desires for the newest gadgets and styles have been elevated over true needs.

Many of the materials we use carelessly every day, including plastics and aluminum, carry significant environmental costs that are not reflected in current market prices, and certainly none of the profit made along the entire “value-chain” is allocated to clean up the extraction and processing waste that may persist for centuries. Let us be courageous and pay fully today so tomorrow our grandchildren and their grandchildren may truly be free.