10. To See the World in a Plastic Cap*

I went to the grocery store yesterday—the one that’s all about natural and organic—to get cream for my morning coffee. To my horror, the brand of cream I always buy because it still has the traditional paper pullout spout, had now acquired the plastic cap kind like all the others. (Not just that—there was only one brand of cap-free milk available at this store.)

I try to follow a general rule I set for myself a few years ago: not to buy hard plastic—only the thin plastic bags or wraps that normally enclose foods like nuts, dried fruits, hard beans, and chips of corn or chocolate. (I have to eat something besides produce. Cruelty-guaranteed meat is out, too.) Before the pandemic, when the farmer’s market was open, I could almost avoid even these. One of the vendors there gave me a kefir culture, so I could also forego the hard plastic of yogurt containers and instead get my probiotics from cultured milk.

I make exceptions to this rule, of course. (I think it’s rare for rules to survive without them.) I might have to buy sunscreen or vitamins in hard plastic, for example. But the plastic caps on dairy cartons really piss me off. For most of my life, I’ve done fine without them. There’s something satisfying about folding back a couple of flaps on a carton and squeezing out a useful point. Voilà, you have a spout that can be folded right back in afterwards. Or not. It’s a good design; no extra parts. It’s a bit like origami. Some people enjoy folding paper so much they’ve become paper-folding artists.

Clockwise from upper left: matadornetwork.com, ikuzoorigami.com, demilked.com, eugenehon.blogspot.com

Given this elegant paper solution to spout creation, why switch to a plastic cap and ring? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve had more than one accident with the blasted ring. Hook your finger in it and pull, and—of course it should come out gradually, but it doesn’t. It breaks free suddenly, like a nail in a board you’ve been holding with both feet. You probably won’t go flying backward, but you’ll be lucky if you don’t splash liquid all over yourself, maybe on your only silk shirt, or some nearby treasure.

Yes, the ring and cap thing has a learning curve! Why ever would I prefer it to the simpler approach? And it doesn’t speak well of the producer’s attitude. Either they don’t know about the plastic buildup in our oceans (to mention just one plastizaster among so many) or they don’t care. Neither circumstance bodes well for the consumer or the product.

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State* 

I left the store without buying the cream.

I’ve often wondered why beverage producers prefer the plastic caps—and why the move seems to be toward plastic in general, though that’s easier to understand. It’s usually cheaper—cheap enough to offer disposability. It’s lighter to ship. It’s break resistant (until aged or weathered). And, of course, Big Oil is pushing it hard. How else will they make money when wind and solar replace current uses of petroleum? I suspect this is a strong force behind new roles for plastic (which uses oil) where they otherwise make no sense. Often the use of plastic makes good sense; someday, perhaps, human society will sort out the necessary from the silly, with the goal of preventing the destruction of life on Earth.

Just don’t talk to me about plastic recycling. Essentially, this is a myth, a concept used to promote increased use of plastic. It’s scientifically and physically possible to recycle plastic; however, it’s not financially rewarding. As a business model, it’s unsustainable. So it won’t be done.

We are led to Believe a Lie

When we see not thro the Eye*

But the broad subject of plastic is too expansive for a blog post. I just wanted to know about the plastic cap on my cream. Was it defensible?

I found just one company’s defense: Malta Dairy, which, as the name indicates, is based on the island of Malta. In 2017, they introduced plastic caps as part of a fancy rebranding, but soon found themselves—wow!—facing a customer protest, which took the form of a deluge of caps mailed back to them. The company’s response was unconvincing, even puzzling, I thought.

“Screw caps made it easier for the cartons to be opened by the elderly and people with mobility difficulties,” they said. I presume they meant hand issues, not wheelchair requirements, but I wasn’t sure. My own spout-opening experiences belie this claim, as you already know.

“They also keep the milk fresher for longer,” they continued, without citing any studies, “and will combat wastage, especially in public places like hospitals, where the old cartons give the illusion of contamination and would be thrown away quicker.”

Illusion of contamination?

They went on to mention “some people” who took to social media, expressing their preference for plastic caps. “These people do exist,” the company said. (If only we’d look really carefully, right?)

Of course, this story only reinforced my hunch that the plastic cap on milk cartons made no sense. I could see it was small-minded of me to get preoccupied with that one little transgression, which  happened to affect me, when the problem of plastic disposal was seriously huge, and getting worse. But the bigger picture makes me despair. It’s this same lack of necessity times a trillion. Items that took time to make get used for one minute, or five, and live on for centuries. Of course, single-use plastic is the most egregious, which is why anti-plastic campaigns begin with it—with straws, etc. But I also cringe at the cheap plastic silliness I run into—giant blowup holiday decorations, artificial fruit and flowers, fake chocolate Easter bunnies, “must-have” souvenirs, movie character figurines, faux mounted deer heads, back scratchers with little plastic hands . . . when I see this kind of avoidable plastic kitsch, it makes me think, “For this the human species is destroying the beautiful ecosystems of the world?

Commercial vs. homemade backscratchers. Homemade version is a hand-carved mesquite branch, which only took about twenty minutes to make.

            Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly

            For the Last Judgement draweth nigh.*

All of these are unnecessary plastic. But there’s necessary, life-and-death plastic, too. I have a medical prescription that comes in plastic, without which I wouldn’t live very long. My mother had a plastic heart valve, obviously critical. (Did you know that heart valves can be recalled? Thankfully, removal isn’t always necessary.) Vegans would say my dairy consumption isn’t necessary, either, and they’re right. For animal welfare and environmental reasons, veganism is the way to go. (It’s just that when the doctor-recommended diet is low-carb, low-sugar, there isn’t much left on the plate but vegetables. For eggs, we do spoil our chickens terribly.)

The fact is, even if my cream container had no plastic cap, I’d still be buying plastic. The paper cartons have to be waterproofed. This used to be done with wax, but these days almost everyone uses polyethylene—a kind of plastic. When Malta Dairy claims that their cartons are 100% recyclable, they’re almost certainly lying. If they were using wax, it would be a big deal. They’d be fools not to tout it.

Three pieces of a dairy carton after most of the paper has fallen off and turned into beneficial compost (not shown).

I’ve actually isolated that carton plastic. Anyone can. If you throw pieces of a milk carton into a compost bin, you’ll find them again when you harvest the compost, minus the paper. What’s left are the pieces of filmy plastic that waterproofed the carton. It isn’t much. It’s thinner, I think, than the wrappings of chips and nuts I still buy, until I can figure out how to live with plastic. Without plastic. Random personal rules, sudden one-person product boycotts, and written rants for a blog are probably not the most effective strategy.

Angry customer protests, mailing back the plastic caps? More of those! That anti-plastic group—Waterkeeper Alliance—whose help request was in my mailbox when I got back from the grocery store that day? Yeah, I’ll support them. And the others like them. Continuing to cut up my cartons and throw them in the compost? Well, I feel compelled. Patronizing our local, low-plastic farmer’s market when it re-opens? Absolutely. I hope it’s soon.

            When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow

            To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow*

If my plastic “activism” is patchy and less than complete, well, I think it will evolve and improve. I’m open to being enlightened, inspired, and assisted. It’s complicated work because the problem is complex as well as gargantuan. A trailhead of sincere intention is at least an honorable place to start.

*Title inspired by, and quotations from, “Auguries of Innocence,” by William Blake.

2 thoughts on “10. To See the World in a Plastic Cap*

  1. Enjoyable reading. In addition to the change-the-world effect of one’s personal decisions (which is miniscule), there’s profound existential value (we are what we do).


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