Even before I sold my car eighteen years ago, I liked riding my bicycle around town—to get places and to get exercise. So I thought the Camelback was a cool invention, though I’d never tried one. A soft plastic bag within a small backpack with a long, flexible straw coming out of it, so you could sip water whenever you wanted—no more stopping to reach for a water bottle, using both hands to open it, and rushing to gulp down what you could before the light turned green. But I didn’t need one. So I didn’t buy one.
Then one day I saw one at a yard sale, cheap. I bought it. The guy said it didn’t leak.
And that was true. It held water just fine. But I couldn’t bear to suck water from its straw. The old plastic reeked. My nose told me that I’d be swigging a strong plastic tea. And there were brown spots where the material should have been clear. Why hadn’t I noticed these things earlier?
I put the thing in storage for a few years—maybe subconsciously hoping that if it rested awhile it would magically grow young again. It didn’t, and at last I threw it out. It wasn’t something I needed, anyway.
But the time came when I did need one. That time was a few weeks ago. I’ve acquired a silly and improbable condition called Burning Mouth Syndrome. Yeah, it’s a real thing, with quite a few articles and videos to be found online these days. It feels exactly like your mouth feels after taking in scalding coffee or soup when you believed it had cooled down. The difference is, after too-hot liquid your mouth will eventually heal, but the painful symptoms of this syndrome can last days, weeks, or even years. The cause is still unknown.
My two earlier episodes were brief, luckily. This time the pain has stuck around longer. It probably didn’t help that one day, biking home from a friend’s, I didn’t stop often enough to sip water. By the time I got home, my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth, and it made a kind of Velcro-ripping sound when I pulled it free.
Water doesn’t cure the condition, but it soothes the burn temporarily, and in my experience it triggers longer “remissions.” So what I needed while biking was a constant water feed. A Camelback.
I still hated the idea of drinking from that much plastic—from the bladder, as the manufacturers called it, and the plastic tubing. I thought about making my own water backpack. I had a nice piece of bendy copper tubing that I thought might be perfect—until I envisioned my bike hitting a pothole and the stiff copper end gashing my mouth. No, I was going to have to bite this plastic bullet, to order new stuff.
It works pretty well. The mouthpiece looks like a lithops succulent. You bite it, and the slit opens to let water flow through when you suck it up. There’s no plastic taste, since this one is new, and I usually put ice in it, so drinking from it is like drinking the refreshing glass of cold water you might have with a meal. When it starts to make slurping noises, that means it’s almost empty. Hopefully you’re almost home or have another container of water to pour in. A closed plastic bag with residual water is prime habitat for mold, so I put it in the freezer when I’m done.
I usually avoid mentioning brand names of things in my writing—why should I give free advertising to a profit-making company? Selling new stuff? But this seems to be a good product, and helpful, so I don’t mind including the name. The experience has reminded me once again that it’s impossible to avoid all new stuff, and impossible to avoid all plastic. Last I checked, a small number of Indigenous people who’ve avoided contact with us moderns are still doing it—but it’s not more than a few handfuls of humans. And their bodies would probably register plastic chemicals from environmental sources. To be plastic, or not to be—there’s no question that those two options are all we have right now.
So I think there’s no harm in trying to avoid both plastic and new stuff, which so often incorporates plastics. And when necessary, to make exceptions. The principle is really just a climate-era version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others.
With having to buy the water-dispensing backpack to douse my pain, I’m again reminded that my personal efforts to avoid buying new—to curb my consumption—will never be perfect. They’ll need to be supplemented by action at higher levels. Just one solution on a broader scale—say, finding a way to dole out pharmaceuticals without covering the country with orange plastic bottles, or stopping a single manufacturer from changing an existing paper carton to a plastic box—might just do more than a whole lifetime of good personal choices. But it’s possible to do both.
When I have to make exceptions to the new-stuff-sucks “rules” I’ve made for myself, I don’t feel guilty. Who feels guilty breaking their own rules? The exceptions bring me to this place of conclusion, keeping me humble. And keeping me on track.
I have a right to stay alive if I can, and to fight any pain or illness that oppresses me.
I’ve found that it takes quite a few stars lining up to avoid acquiring a plastic bag: You have to be carrying some kind of replacement; your purchases have to fit in the bag(s) you brought; you have to catch the attention of the checkout person before they start tossing your stuff into the maw of the plastic bags, etc.
I always end up with a slow trickle of plastic bags in my life. I’m happy if I can reuse them two or three times. I even need them to line my little garbage can—though the ones we get from the one-vendor farmer’s market down the street work too, and the FDA requires them to put produce in brand-new plastic bags. (Yeah, governmental agencies always seem to be oblivious to the really important issues.) I keep my bags under control by rolling them up tightly like so:
Then they can go in a purse, cloth shopping bag, or anywhere you can reach for them when you find yourself in a store. Please refer to the following stepwise photos if they’re helpful:
Continue to fold the square until the bundle is tight and tiny. Secure with a twist tie or string:
What about cloth bags? Well, you have to consider what it took to make them. There are lots of websites that will tell you about what energy and materials went into their production, and how many times you have to use them before they become ecologically superior to plastic bags. It’s daunting! Over a hundred, over a thousand, depending on the bag’s construction. Don’t collect them, like I have. (Two of these were gifts, one was a decades-old purchase. I have them out for grabbing as I leave the house. It helps.)
LinkedIn: “How many times must a bag be reused for it to be more environmentally friendly than a single-use plastic bag?”
The Atlantic: “Are Tote Bags Really Good for the Environment?”
Columbia Climate School: “Plastic, Paper or Cotton: Which Shopping Bag is Best?”
2 thoughts on “Post 72: Pain or Plastic?”
It’s complicated. On the level of my choice as an individual person, there are more factors at play. Case in point: My friend and former boss had ordered, purchased and transported from China hundreds of cloth shopping bag to use in promoting his business. Most ended up not distributed. When I worked for him, boxes of the bags were in storage. His business closed and he had to dispose of everything. The cost for these bags to the environment was a sunk cost – in the past. By accepting several of these bags, I kept them out of a landfill. Even if I use them only a few times, I have avoided using disposable bags. Surely this is a win for the environment.
We’ve been washing and reusing our plastic produce bags for decades. I think your local vendor is BS-ing you about the FDA and new plastic bags. Here in California, I have bought vegetables at grocery stores and farmers markets using my re-used plastic or no bag at all. It may be a local regulation (and I even doubt that), but it’s not Federal.