Changing the Culture of Throwaway Living - Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff

Photo (bottom left): vberger / Wikimedia Commons

Photo (bottom left): vberger / Wikimedia Commons

In the last 50 years, our habits have shifted to this culture of convenience, and that makes sense; we’re moving really fast, life has sped up, people are concerned about not having enough time to do things and so they want to make things easier and quicker. And one of those conveniences in terms of easy and quick, is plastic. But I think what we have to realize is that there are huge implications with using so much plastic — and that single-use plastic is actually really, really easy to shift away from.
— Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff

When plastic made its foray into daily life in the 1950s, it was billed as the liberation to an existence constrained by household drudgery. Plates could be tossed instead of washed; coffee could be chugged on the go and then chucked into a rubbish bin; and frozen TV dinners could be stripped of their plastic wrap and popped in the oven at a moment’s notice. Life Magazine touted the disposable revolution in an article entitled ‘Throwaway Living’; a mere half-century later, every piece of plastic modern mankind ever made is still with us. Indeed, 8 million metric tons of these metamorphosed fossil fuels continue to enter our oceans each year, choking all life in the pervasive plastic path of its micro-pieces, and ultimately working its way up the food chain, into us.

We’ve been taught that we can use plastics so long as we recycle, but that system, is in fact, grievously broken, and perhaps never should have been the answer all along, as I learned in this thought-provoking conversation with Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, the ocean conservation non-profit whose watchdog study on plastic microbeads led to a federal ban in 2015. But how can we even begin to tackle the 5.25 trillion particles of “plastic smog” (that’s 270,000 tons) polluting our oceans worldwide? How can we reverse the seemingly inescapable grasp of a now entrenched throwaway society? Rachel is an awe-inspiring former journalist and mom of three (as well as my friend and neighbor, lucky me!), and she digs deep in this interview -- unraveling not only the history of plastic and the roots of our throwaway society, but channeling the save-everything mentality of her great-grandmother to inspire all of us toward a post-plastic revolution through doable change.   

Here's the run-down of our conversation:

  • "The year that the concept of plastic pollution reached critical mass”: the work of 5 Gyres and the #foamfree campaign

  • Single-use plastics and the pervasiveness of toxic polystyrene

  • Our modern-day culture of convenience

  • Learn to take it with you: The bamboo utensil set, metal straw and reusable cup and bag Rachel brings with her everywhere

  • “It’s like a betrayal”: The real problem with recycling

  • How the fossil fuel market fuels disposable plastics

  • Outsourcing our plastic waste to the third world and China’s Green Sword

  • The myth of the plastic island and the truth about the five gyres

  • Turning our oceans into a plastic smog

  • “All of the plastic we’ve made since the 1950s is still with us”

  • The human health implications of plastic pollution

  • What Rachel learned from her great-grandmother

  • Women in the workforce and women’s liberation: the birth of our throwaway society

  • “It’s less about a whole shift, and more about one thing”: How to shift away from single-use plastics

  • Mushroom-based polystyrene and the challenge of compostable plastic

  • “It’s just about asking”: How Rachel preempts plastic in her daily life

  • How 5 Gyres changed WeWork

  • Reusables as a means to build community

  • Taking action at the governmental level

  • Rachel’s upcoming plastic-free holiday (plus how to shift the mindset of gift-loving grandparents!)

Want to take action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution and join the #foamfree revolution? Learn more on the 5 Gyres website and sign up for their must-read newsletter. You can also follow 5 Gyres on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as well as follow the ever-inspiring Rachel across social media (handle on all: @rachellsarnoff). And don’t miss Rachel's just-taped TED talk, below! 

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!