Mindful Consumption: On Plastics, Parenting, and the Planet

Mindful Consumption: On Plastics, Parenting, and the PlanetThere are many names for my generation: Gen X-ers, the MTV Generation, Slackers, Latchkey Kids. One thing I can confidently say about the middle-class youth from this generation: we were proud of our independence.

Spared the turmoil of the political and social upheavals of the previous generation, empowered with a whole three hours in the afternoon AND the key to our home until both working parents came back, armed with a microwave and cupboards laden with prepackaged Ho-Ho’s, Ding Dong’s, Spaghetti-O’s and whatever leftovers mom had in cleverly-shaped little Tupperware containers in the fridge, we could do it all.

Well, we could get ourselves in the house anyway, eat as if our bones were hollow, do our homework, play with plastic action figures, and watch Gilligan’s Island and Martha Quinn, all by ourselves.

On the weekends, we’d pack a picnic to take to the beach: juice boxes with handy disposable straws, string cheese in individual wrappers that sometimes fluttered off seaward with the breeze, Twinkies, sandwiches in plastic bags that kept everything dry and fresh during the hours in the roasting sun. We’d eat on Styrofoam plates and drink water from plastic thermoses while playing smashball with plastic balls freshly unwrapped from a plastic package.

Plastic was our freedom, our salvation from being burdened with the hassle and time sink of food preparation, transport, and storage. Plastics held our beloved peanut butter, margarine, morning to-go coffee, and leftovers, made up most of our toy and utensils, and were so integrated into our glamorously busy, busy lives, so celebrated in talk shows and commercials and magazines, that I never once questioned their merits.

That is, until I spent a Sea Semester as a marine science student in college.

Far, far away from suburbia, we cast nets and collection bottles into fathoms of open sea hundreds of miles from land. Along with the wonder of seeing magnificent, iridescent creatures, my heart shattered to see the all-too-familiar sights of candy and straw wrappers, plastic bottles, and six-pack rings in every haul.

Mindful Consumption: On Plastics, Parenting, and the Planet

We spent hours untangling sea turtles from garbage bags or tending to sick birds with tiny pieces of Wonder Woman and GI Joe parts in their stomachs. But in addition to the big pieces of plastic in every square foot of ocean that we transected, the most jarring discovery was that there were endless quantities of LITTLE pieces, everywhere. Part of our data collection was simply to pick out tiny little multi-colored plastics out of every sample of water, animal, mineral, or plant that we collected. These pieces came from the breakdown of bigger plastics, sure, but also from face scrubs, bean bags, Etch-a-Sketch’s, factory equipment, washing machine parts—the list seems as endless as the number of tiny pieces we tweezer-picked, squinty eyed, out of piles of Sargasso seaweed 500 miles offshore.

It was more than I could take in

Considering the vastness of the ocean, the efforts to remove the plastics and save the animals we came across were not statistically viable rescue efforts, but they did provide invaluable quantitative data to give humanity a sobering view of the global devastation wracked by the Gen X lifestyle.

It made me realize that vast as the ocean is, our consumption habits required even more space—an incalculable and ultimately unavailable amount–and that is NOT our right. I learned from my professors, my conscious peers, and by the cook on the boat I ended up working on for 5 years how to eat and live sustainably.

But the questions gnawed at me. How can we stop this devastation? How can we be free of plastics? How can we reverse all of—THIS—when millions of people were still happily going about their fabulously convenient, middle class, well-meaning lives, completely unaware of what was really happening?

Over the years to follow, more and more data came out about the deleterious health effects of plastics, and serious, deeply conditioned lifestyle changes were in order. A sense of crisis ensued, and along with many other conscious-rising twenty-somethings of my generation, I became rabidly anti-plastic. I bought foods in bulk and stored them in glass and steel containers from thrift stores. “Slow food” was the new norm: we took the time to cook good meals and save and freeze the rest for convenient re-heating on the stove later. We grew herbs and vegetables, or bought them at the farmer’s market.

Embracing a slower pace 

We adopted a new credo: Slow down, take care of the body, reduce, reuse, recycle, do yoga. Model the change that needs to happen. I wore shirts that said “breathe,” and “Earth Champ,” carried protest signs against environmental atrocities, organized community plastics cleanups, and wrote articles and folk songs against the establishment. Though often I felt as if we weren’t doing enough against the corporate monsters and political machine, it was the beginning of a truly conscious and hopeful way to live. Best of all, daily yoga provided an entry way into a life-changing practice that became destined to save the world: mindfulness.

Every yoga class I took ended with about 5 minutes of meditation. A window seemed to crack open during this time, and the gentle, fresh breeze that wafted through it was beckoning. I decided I wanted to learn more, and so took up formal Zen meditation. The window blew open. Mindfulness connected the heart that ached out on the open sea to the mind determined to take action and “do something.”

Mindfulness synergized being and doing

It fueled a new type of activism: one that was centered and steady, not emotive and crisis-centered. My whole being was more at ease with effecting change in harmony with things exactly as they are now, rather than by railing with frustration against the establishment and those who didn’t think and act like me. Mindfulness was working steadily to evolve a quality of life that was more sustainable in the face of what used to appear slightly effective at best and desperate at worst.

My evolving mindfulness abilities worked very well when it came to tackling the pervasive issue of plastics consumption. Mindfulness allowed me to see which demographics were particularly nefarious in overabundant plastics use and waste, and kids and families ranked #1.

There was an onslaught of kid-centric marketing of juice boxes and prepackaged lunches, and ubiquitous little colorful yogurt drinks with Dora the Explorer on them seemed to smile brightly out of every refrigerated case. The old familiar terms like “convenience!” “freshness!” “time saver!” from childhood were in every parenting magazine ad for the latest product. In working with families who found these things irresistible, I encouraged parents to nix the juice boxes and little yogurt drinks and opt for bulk products in reusable containers instead.

A few years later, I became a parent and moved out of the city into a college town full of like-minded moms. We cloth diapered, we packed our organic grapes and carrots into glass containers, we shared big packages of dried seaweed nori instead of buying the single serving sizes. We organized mom-baby yoga groups and gardening playgroups and shared articles and tips, and had essential oil and seed-exchanging parties in the same way my own mother used to have Tupperware parties.

Ushering in a mindful generation

We often commented proudly on being the change we wanted to see. My kids and their kids chanted together, planted together, meditated together. It was happening: a new generation fueled by the awakening, outrage, and activism of my generation coming to terms with and clarity about how we can make a difference. Through conscious choices, we were changing the face of humanity in our communities.

My kids grew older. By necessity, as each family went to different types of schools and homeschools, and as each child became involved in different sports and interests, other parents and their lifestyles suddenly surrounded me. The bubble burst one birthday party, one soccer game at a time as my kids were kindly offered Danimals yogurt drinks by well-meaning parents and ate popsicles in long skinny turtle-choking clear plastic wrappers.

Our world was changing, and fast. My son loved the mega-sweet yogurt drinks so much that he wanted them all the time. I compromised and told him he could have them at his next birthday party, but when some of my original moms saw them, they were openly horrified. One even exclaimed loudly: “WE do NOT drink THOSE!”

Apologetically, I explained the genesis of their presence here, and how one of our birthday activities would be to wash out the tiny bottles and make shakers as an attempt to demonstrate the concept of “reuse.” It fell flat. Outside of our bubble, the world wasn’t so simple or harmonious anymore.

One harried afternoon, we were rushing between scheduled activities and had a scarce 15 minutes to eat. I ran my irritable, hungry kids into the grocery store, bought them some grab and go sandwiches and drinks, and scurried back out to the car to get them situated. As I was working to divvy out the plastic packages, disseminate the plastic forks and plastic straws all out of a plastic bag, a woman in a yoga outfit walked by and gave me a disgusted look. She reminded me very much of me, twenty years ago. “Wait!” I wanted to yell at her. “I left my cloth bags and reusable straws at home just this once, and we never do this—this is unusual—we’re recycling everything–I’m actually like you!” But of course, there was no time to engage in such a conversation.

The kids were at their limit, she had made up her mind in one snapshot, and we were out of time. The only thing left to do, in that moment, was breathe compassion and open the heart.

Nurturing a balance

I still work with the apparent contradictions that regularly surface when it comes to conscious choices and parenting. We continue to make limiting plastics, packaging, and other types of wasteful consumption our family choice, to chat with other parents about it in a non-confrontational way, and to consistently network with others and find ways to be proactive. But my kids get mixed messages all over the community. For example, the parent who gave out tiny yogurt drinks and plastic popsicles at every soccer game was a highly positive, team-oriented person, doing so out of a genuine desire to help and nourish the team in a way that made sense to him, and my negative judgement was confusing my kids. Was he a “good” guy, or a “bad” guy? These, of course, became teachable moments for all of us, as it became clearer and clearer to me that nothing is that black and white; we must always emphasize the goodness in every situation and every person, even if it seems counter to the solutions we’re seeking.

And as long as we’re looking for solutions, let us be mindful of where the problem of rampant plastics is actually coming from: the monopoly and control of society by corporate financial greed. Can we really vilify the yogurt-drink-wielding soccer dad when, in fact, our corporate greed-dictated society all but shoves those little bisphenol-laden bottles down our throats? Making the right choices can be a feat of frustrating, acrobatic proportions in opposition to corporate—driven consumption-obsessed motives.

Want to exact change?

Go to the source.

Identify the corruption and demand regulation on all levels of governance. Find out how countries in western Europe are effectively transforming policy from the ground up to make alternative energy the norm while plastics are strictly regulated, or how states like California have eliminated plastic bag usage altogether. Google how local citizens in Treasure Island, Florida convinced the city to ban plastic straws in beach bars. Learn how these places and people changed their whole society through proactive democracy–which still exists despite the corruption that’s infected it. Your children will learn how the process can work, and benefit greatly from it.

As I deepen my meditation practice and try to live mindfulness in every moment, it becomes clear that the mind can be consumed—with judgment, opinion, excuses, sanctimoniousness– just as grossly as any other product. Just as we work diligently to limit our plastics and other types of wasteful physical and environmental consumption, so can we be ever mindful of the very source–our mind itself–so that it is ever connected to our heart, the source of love. This mind- and heart-set, based in compassion for all, is the simple solution in a not-so-simple world that will allow us to work together, in all our diversity, to bring about the change we want to see in ways that actually work.


Top image via Dustin Jensen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One Comment

  1. Wow! That was really encouraging and inspiring! I’m a teacher in Canada and sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who cares about the overuse of plastics!!!! Taking a stand for yourself can be tricky as well because others want to make different choices and feel judged about it. Your message helps me to have hope. Thanks!