Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

The Puzzle of Plastic

My wife and I went shopping for groceries the other day and forgot to bring our environmentally correct reusable shopping bags.  As a punishment, we had to pay 5¢ each for plastic checkout bags, plus sales tax.  These bags are a serious threat to the environment you know.  The younger generation probably always remembers to bring their certifiably Green reusable bags.  We older folk have been so wasteful for so long.  We have left the planet in such a dreadful state that the young ones almost despair of being able to save it.

I got to wondering, though.  If the checkout bags are so evil, why aren’t the environmentally correct folks just as concerned about the plastic bags used for bread, sugar, potatoes, carrots and all the other foodstuffs that we find embalmed in plastic on the supermarket shelves?

My memories are a couple of generations out of sync with the young environmentalists.  My mother didn’t buy bread; she baked it.  She bought flour in 100 pound cotton bags.  When a bag was empty,  she carefully opened the seams and  washed and bleached the bag to remove the printing and the picture of Robin Hood.  Two bags sewn together made a bed sheet.  (Nowadays sheets come wrapped in plastic, too.)  The material could also be used for slips, aprons, tea towels and underwear.  Sugar also came in big cotton bags, even better quality cotton than the flour bags.  The material from those bags was used for pillow cases and kitchen curtains, usually decorated with hand embroidery.  Sometimes the material was dyed and used to make a dress for a little girl.  Now that was recycling!

Mom didn’t buy potatoes and carrots in plastic bags.  She asked my father or me to dig some from the garden or bring some up from the bins in the cellar.

She didn’t buy margarine, syrup, honey, peanut butter and other such items in plastic tubs. We didn’t use margarine; syrup, honey, peanut butter and lard all came in sturdy metal cans with tight fitting lids.  Some of them were small buckets with strong wire handles.  These containers then became kitchen canisters and lunch buckets; or made their way out to the shop to store nuts and bolts, nails, screws, and other small parts.

Milk came in from the barn in steaming buckets.  Some would be poured into glass jars and put in the fridge.  The rest would be separated and some cream kept for our own use.  The rest of the cream was poured into a steel cream can and shipped to the creamery.  We made our own butter and cottage cheese.  If we ever bought milk, it came in glass bottles that were returned to the dairy, sterilized and refilled.  These glass bottles could be safely used over and over until they broke.

The plastic bottles that are now used are only safe for one use.  We pay a small deposit for each bottle to cover the cost of recycling.  They are then converted into the fabric from which the environmentally friendly grocery bags are made.  Then the supermarkets sell us these bags and tell us what a great service we’re doing for the environment.  I don’t know what the environment thinks, but it sounds like a win-win situation for the supermarkets.

Plastic checkout bags make ideal garbage can liners, but that doesn’t seem very smart at 5¢ each.  So now we buy plastic garbage can liners by the box.  Does that sound like a reduction in the use of plastic bags?  I guess they’ve got us over a barrel, and it’s a plastic barrel at that.

Breakfast cereal boxes now contain plastic pouches.  Those pouches used to be wax paper and my mother would use that wax paper to wrap my sandwiches for school lunch.  Is plastic more sanitary, or have the manufacturers realized they can make more money if nothing is reusable?

Manufacturers spend millions in research to develop plastic toys that will be educational, and that will not survive to be used by the next child in the family.  The educational label makes parents and grandparents feel that they are buying something of everlasting benefit to their child or grandchild.  The child would usually rather play with the package in which  the toy came.  My favourite toy as a child was a set of wooden alphabet blocks.  I used them to make houses, barns, corrals, towers, and almost accidentally learned to read.  My daughter played with that same set of blocks but I think we confused her a bit with all the marvellous plastic toys we bought for her.  Alphabet blocks must have been too simple, too useful and too durable, you can hardly find them anymore.

I guess my childhood was spent in the pre-plastic era — almost sounds like prehistoric doesn’t it?  Taking this little trip into the past makes me puzzle over the amount of free time that my mother had.  She washed with a wringer washer and hung clothes outside on the line to dry.  She baked bread and buns, pies and cakes.  She packed prodigious amounts of vegetables and fruits into glass jars, made pickles in a big earthenware crock, sewed with a treadle sewing machine, mended and embroidered by hand, knit socks and sweaters.  Nevertheless, she had time to write letters, to read, to play games with her little boy — much more time it seems than most modern mothers.  Mothers today have all kinds of electric conveniences to make life easier, they buy all their food and clothes, yet seem to have less free time.  Where does the time go?  My guess is that they spend it shopping.

Oh, one more thing — my mother never used plastic to buy anything.


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