White Heron Sangha

Socially-Engaged Buddhist Practice and Plastics

by Sharon Rippner

As Buddhists, our intention is to reduce suffering.  We can begin on the cushion by recognizing and acknowledging our contribution to the suffering caused by plastic pollution.

Our planet is suffering from plastic pollution.  Annual global production of plastic is now 335 million tons and is projected to triple by 2050. This year the US alone will discard 30 million tons of plastic and the national recycling rate, which was 9.1% in 2015 is projected to drop to 2.9% this year.  In California, less than 15% of single-use plastic is recycled.  What happens to the rest of it?

Regularly, dolphins, whales, turtles and birds die of starvation because their stomachs are full of plastic trash that was floating in the ocean.  Such trash has created The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is found in the deepest parts of the ocean and the most remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic regions.  Micro-plastics (clothing, cosmetics) are now being found in rain falling in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Traces of BPH plastics are found in human breast milk.  PCB compounds from older plastics, now banned due to serious health risks, are still rampant in our environment.

Further, as all plastics degrade over time, they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, thus contributing to our on-going global warming/climate crisis. Poor and developing countries have been our dumping grounds for our discarded plastic, most of which is not recyclable, biodegradable nor compostable, creating havoc in their environments.

As Buddhists, our intention is to reduce suffering.  We can begin on the cushion by recognizing and acknowledging our contribution to the suffering caused by plastic pollution. Then, with mindful investigation we can:

  • examine our consumptive patterns (grasping).
  • consider the extent to which we are caught in the “out of sight/out of mind” attitude of privileged existence (delusion). 
  • become more aware the impacts (positive and negative) of our small actions on the larger society (karma).  
  • gain a deeper understanding of our interconnectedness to everything else (dependent co-arising).

Hopefully we will then take our practice off the cushion and act at three levels:

Being mindful of our own use of plastics.

  • Look around your house and identify your many sources of plastic pollution—don’t forget cosmetics (microbeads), and clothing (polyester, microfibers).
  • Give mindful consideration to your shopping list.  Can you find options/choices that would result in no plastic containers, items (disposable razors) or packaging?  (BTW, I have been working on this for the last year with the goal of making my kitchen plastic free—it is really hard and there is still plastic in my recycling bin each month!)

Participating at the community level to raise awareness.

  • Educate yourself further about plastic pollution.
  • Talk with friends/family about the issue and solutions.
  • Ask restaurants to switch from plastic products to paper products or bring your own utensils and take-home containers with you.
  • Participate in trail, stream and beach cleanup.
  • Make sure you recycle properly. However, because most plastics are not recycled, we need to work to eliminate them from our waste stream.

Support enacting local and state laws and regulations which will significantly decrease single use plastics.

  • On May 31, 2019, SB54/AB1080, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, passed the Senate and Assembly and is now waiting for the Governor’s signature.  This is very good news; watch for other state level initiatives.
  • Watch for and support local city/county efforts to eliminate Styrofoam, plastic straws, and other forms of single-use plastics from our commercial waste stream.

For information about our Socially Engaged Buddhist Study Group, click here.

Sharon Rippner (srippner@msn.com)

Back to first article - Summer 2019

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