Margaret Atwood Says We Need Another Reformation, This Time for Plastics

CC BY 2.0. Richard Black

The renowned author says we worship plastics like a universal religion -- and they must be stopped.

Even Margaret Atwood has joined the call to give up single-use plastics. With her usual acerbic wit, the famed Canadian writer has written an article for the Guardian that likens the planet’s obsession with plastics to a “universal religion” in desperate need of Reformation. While our world contains many questionable institutions in dominant roles – big banks, oil companies, big pharma, etc. – Atwood says that, if given the choice, she’d get rid of plastics.

“Are plastics an institution? Not in the sense of having a pope, or even a small cabal of leaders. But they are surely the modern equivalent of a universal religion. We worship them, whether we admit it or not. Their centre is whatever you happen to be doing, their circumference is everywhere; they’re as essential to our modern lives as the air we breathe, and they’re killing us. They must be stopped.”
Atwood points out that plastics didn’t always exist; they became mainstream only in the 1950s. Back then, plastic appeared mostly in the form of Bakelite, “used to make decorative dessert fork handles and chunky art deco jewellery.” Garbage was wrapped in newspaper, cheap toys were made of tin, rubber gloves were rubber, and “there were no exercise balls.” In other words, we know we can live

We really have no choice but to begin seeking alternatives because plastics are destroying our oceans, and “dead oceans mean dead people.” From the oxygen-generating algae that help us breathe, to the hormone-altering chemicals that leach from plastics into drinking water and mutate male sperm, our existence is threatened if we continue to use plastics as widely as we do.

Atwood calls for decisive action:

“First, organic and biodegradable substitutes must be found to perform the chores now done by plastics. Moulded and baked fungus, textiles made of milkweed, silicone food storage bags? All exist. Second, we need to invent methods to filter plastics out of seawater, collect them before they ever hit the ocean. Third, we then need to break them down into their component parts, rendering them harmless.”

As I’ve written before for TreeHugger, the problem wouldn’t be so bad if we prioritized the development of alternative packaging technologies, but this has not been important to companies or consumers until now. In fact, considering the capabilities that we do have, it’s absurd that we continue to sell single-use items in packaging that lasts indefinitely with toxic side effects.

It’s not surprising that Atwood is speaking out on the topic of plastic pollution. Her terrifying dystopian view of the future is described in detail in the MaddAddam trilogy, which I happen to be reading right now. The first book, Oryx and Crake, mentions beach-trash bottles that the Children of Crake cannot tell apart from nature because they’ve been there for as long as they can remember. It’s depressing because it’s so realistic, not to mention a parent’s nightmare.

We need celebrities like Atwood speaking out about this crisis and pushing it into the spotlight. Only then will sufficient pressure mount on companies to seek alternatives.

meeting Margaret Atwood

© K Martinko -- My friend and I met Atwood last summer at a book-signing.