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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Hos: Convenience Kills

If an action as simple as consuming a bag of chips can wreak environmental havoc, then what are we to do?

I have a question for you: Do you think it is morally permissible for you to consume a bag of chips? A regular, plastic, and often half-filled bag of chips?

I’m sure you’re currently somewhat confused as to what the argument around the morality of potato chip consumption would even be. Perhaps this is an incredibly niche feeling that only plagues me, but I tend to feel the slightest bit guilty after I eat a bag of chips and throw away the wrapper. What bothers me isn’t necessarily the knowledge that potato chips are bad for one’s health or that they’re — at high levels —  carcinogenic, but rather that I know that I have acted in a way that I view to be, in essence, selfish. 

You’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “Oh, so even something as innocuous as eating a bag of potato chips is selfish nowadays? Is there anything morally ‘safe’ left in this world?” To that, I will jokingly answer — probably not. Usually, when I grab a bag of chips, it’s because I’m in a rush and have no time to stop and have a proper meal. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. I’m not a monster for wanting to feed myself, especially when I’m in a hurry. How else can I be expected, like every other Dartmouth student, to fit approximately 30 hours of work and commitments into a 24 hour day? These acts of convenience sustain the impossible.

My problem is as follows: these single-use potato chip bags are objectively bad for the environment. They are neither recyclable nor compostable and take an indeterminate number of years to break down into smaller pieces that end up as microplastics and, eventually, nanoplastics. This means that the single bag that you enjoyed in the span of 5 minutes takes longer than your entire lifetime to reach its end, and even then, it doesn’t do so properly. Being able to efficiently manage microplastics and nanoplastics will be one of the most pressing challenges of our future, for they are quite literally everywhere. Microplastics are released into our environment during the most mundane of human activities. From using face washes with microbead plastics to washing our shiny, synthetic clothes (which release microplastics into the water with each wash), some of the most normalized aspects of our lives indicate that microplastics have begun to compose the very foundation of our lives. What’s worse is that as we continue to poison Mother Nature and her waterways, we are inadvertently poisoning ourselves. It seems that she has a vengeful sense of humor — and rightfully so — for these microplastics end up right back on our dinner plates. Microplastics have been found not just in our tap water, but also in the seafood that we consume, and there are studies in place that confirm the existence of microplastics in our own human tissue

So we’ve come full circle. What is left to be done? Well, that depends. To what extent are we willing to compromise our own convenience for the sake of our future? Are the ecological and socio-economic threats posed by microplastics a fair price to pay for a comfortable life today? Quite frankly, I can’t envision how our growing dependence on single-use plastics (or at the rate at which we consume it, plastic in general) is sustainable in any way. 

The UN Environment Programme states that “half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once.” If our products are no longer built to last, but rather built to break, then to what extent can this merciless cycle of production and consumption last? I’m not arguing that the solution to our problem is to live with a whole lifetime of trash that could fit in a mason jar, nor am I saying that we shouldn’t ever buy a bottle of water or chew a piece of gum (which is typically made of petroleum and can take up to 1,000 years to decompose) ever again. The convenience of it all is too much to give up.

So is this it? Are we just meant to live with the guilt of knowing that our actions — the ones we once thought trivial and inoffensive — actually have an impact much larger than we imagined? If we hold that to be true, then the problem will only prove to be relentless and unsurmountable. Rather we must take to reducing, reusing and recycling wherever and whenever we can. The dominant ideology in sustainability is that more attention should be paid to reducing and reusing as opposed to recycling, since our recycling infrastructure and technologies aren’t advanced enough to handle the types — and sheer amount — of waste that we produce. 

This requires, however, a reimagining of the production process from the very conception of a product. If our commodities are made from flimsy plastics and styrofoams with the sole purpose of being thrown away, or if I can continue to walk into a grocery store to see rows and rows of excessively packaged and preservative-ridden items, then the battle is over before it has even begun. A shift to utilizing more sustainable materials in production — examples of which range from bamboo and wool to reclaimed wood and organic hemp — and a purposeful reimagining of the way in which we package goods would do a world of wonder in our efforts to preserve what we have left.

It’s only through tapping into the human ingenuity that has served us thus far that we can find ways to create and consume while being conscious of both the environment and the well-meaning, yet hectic, consumer.