Do you remember the days when our parents used to ‘burn the papers’? For those who are too young to understand that term, let me walk you back to my childhood, by the edge of Lake Macquarie in New South Wales, Australia.
My father was a hard-working Italian man with a big heart, big family, and exceptionally strong biceps. He’d work all week tiling people’s roofs. He’d leave home at dawn and I’d be thrilled to hear the squeaky brakes on his ute when he returned at dusk. I’d run up the driveway and jump on the back of the rattly, old ute, hold on tight and laugh with joy as I bounced around as he drove into the property. On the weekend, he’d buy lots of newspapers and all us girls (mum and my two sisters) would treat Dad with endless cups of hot tea and home baked goodies as he kept abreast of the latest news. Sitting on the front veranda, he’d peruse the pages, his hand rubbing his chin as he mulled over the latest events in the Middle East and other current political events, near and abroad. I’d often distract him by jumping on his lap and forcing my way into a cuddle, until his cup was empty, then I’d run it into the kitchen for a refill. After this ritual, Dad’s fingers would be black with ink and he’d be a font of knowledge for good conversation, should any visitors pop in, which was always certain to happen. Then there’d be more tea and cake as I served whoever happened to drop by to enjoy Dad’s great company.
Dad’s ritual meant that piles of newspapers would accumulate and when the plastic bin in the laundry was full of newspaper, there would be the exciting event of ‘burning the papers’. Now any child knows the thrill of being able to play with fire. If I was lucky, one of my parents would supervise and allow me to light a match. My trembling little fingers would nervously attempt to light the match, it usually took a few goes because I was too scared to swipe the match forcefully along the rough side of the matchbox. After I built up enough confidence, I’d swipe the match enough for it to ignite with the force of a minute bomb and I’d try to move the little flame to the nearest available corner of newspaper and coerce the flame to move from the little wooden stick, to the paper. I’d watch in excitement as the flame crept and grew, with its own personality, always starting out gently then erupting into aggression as the flames ate up the newspaper and the knowledge it once held.
Once the sun had set, Dad would turn the news on the television and plant himself on the brown suede sofa for more political updates. I thought it was interminably boring, so I would wander around the house looking for something helpful or exciting to do as Dad channel hopped between the evening news programs. One evening, both my parents were watching television, which was quite rare as Mum was always busy tending to domestic duties. I was pottering about and noticed that the bin in the laundry was full of papers. The laundry was inside the house, two rooms away from the lounge room. I asked in my cute little voice with the most adorable lisp, “Can I burn the papers?” Mum said no as it was dark outside and she was having a rare moment of relaxation and quality time with Dad. But I really wanted to help, so … I decided to burn them anyway … in the laundry … in the house. If someone had peeked into the laundry at that moment, they would have seen a feral looking child with messy hair, only wearing underpants (my default outfit before I was school age). They may have seen me stand on tippy toes, my little fingers reaching up to coax the matches from the high shelf. I wonder if on a subconscious level, I knew I was being naughty as I concentrated on lighting that match, with those little grubby hands with tiny fingernails full of dirt. I was a well-behaved kid and I was trying to help, you know, Mum was very busy, this would be one less job for her to worry about. I was so proud of myself as I successfully ignited the match and transferred the flame to the paper. No mean feat for a little girl who had only ever done this under close supervision. I was beaming with pride and my heart pounded with excitement, I was ‘helping’ and I was having fun … until … I noticed the flames changed from happy and playful to untamed and angry. The plastic bin began to melt. I hoped this wasn’t really happening, but knew I was in a pickle. I had no idea what to do. How do you put a fire out? Even if I did know what to do, I couldn’t reach the high water tap in the laundry.
Damn it! I was going to make more work for mum, she wouldn’t be happy. I sheepishly walked towards the lounge room, deliberately pigeon toed and with my chin lowered as I peeked around the wall to see Dad giving mum a shoulder massage, they weren’t going to like this. I choked on the words as I tried to get them out, lisp and all “There’s something in the laundry”. They ignored me and continued to watch television. I returned to the laundry and the flames were reaching for the ceiling. I became frightened and returned to the lounge room, straightened my toes and increased my volume “There’s something in the laundry”. “Not now”, they dismissed me. I returned to the laundry and the flames were eating the ceiling and rushed back with a red face and with direct eye contact and a forceful, loud lisp “But there’s SOMETHING in the laundry”. By now, the smoke was rolling over my head into the lounge room and the smell of melting plastic was impossible to ignore. Dad and Mum were up in a flash. Then it was a mad rush to stop our entire house from burning down. They only just managed to put the fire out, the laundry was burnt out and the house riddled with smoke. It may have only been one more minute of ignoring the ‘something’ and they could have lost everything.
I feel that our addiction and unwillingness to acknowledge the pandemic issue of single use disposable plastic, is our modern ‘something’ (or at least one of them). A small group of us are yelling, “But there’s something in the laundry” – “There’s something wrong with plastic,” while society is completely distracted and oblivious to the fact they are buying almost all their food in disposable plastic and the harm it is causing. The issue is so enormous that I’m completely staggered and feel like a little kid whispering nervously with a lisp while people dismiss and ignore. If I attempt to talk to someone on a ‘one to one’ level about plastic, they last about thirty seconds, then they go silent and look away, attempting to end the conversation with clear body language that conveys they think I am a lunatic. They appear to think there must be something wrong with me because they choose not to see the problem. They don’t want their perfect moment of unparalleled convenience, disturbed. I have been whispering, but I am getting louder.
Plastic is choking our ocean. It’s killing marine life. Birds bellies are chock full of plastic. By 2050 there will be more plastic mass than fish in the ocean. Marine creatures are absorbing the toxins from plastic. Seafood is fed to livestock, so even if you don’t eat fish, the toxins are still going to enter your system, and if you buy drinks in plastic, maybe a small amount of poison has leached into your daily fluid intake. These toxins have been proven to reduce the reproductive ability of sea life and to make their babies smaller. It can make human males have smaller genitals. BPA is in most American human bodies, with higher rates in children. It is a hormone disruptor and can cause cancer. The production and transport of plastic is contributing to climate change. And plastic is made from oil, a non-renewable source. We’re unnecessarily wrapping our food in the source of energy that our grandchildren could use to warm themselves and cook their food.
The list goes on and on. While most people choose to ignore the warnings that a few of us are trying to get out, the flames are licking the ceiling. Plastic production is going through the roof and recycling rates are minuscule.
I just want to scream — Our addiction to plastic is killing us. We don’t need everything we buy to be gift wrapped in something that is toxic, non-biodegradable and is designed for one time use. We’re not that freaking special that we deserve unlimited convenience in our lifetime, to the detriment of our children’s health and even their existence.
THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE LAUNDRY.