Do I Want to Be Part of Problem or Part of Solution?

One million plastic bottles are sold every second around the world. Most are used once and discarded – unless they get a less lucky second life holding tobacco spit or a more virtuous second life as a pen, shoe or other recycled item. That’s what the “plastic pirates” who compete in Eastern Europe’s annual Tisza River Plastic Cup aim to accomplish.

One of the largest rivers in Europe, the Tisza rivals the Danube and Rhine and was once a thriving ecosystem that supported international tourism and local fishermen in Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia and Romania until an oil discovery mission in Romania resulted in cyanide and heavy metal poisoning that was 180 times the safe limit for humans and destroyed the fish and wildlife. Just as officials finished the cleanup and reintroduced native species to the river, plastic production and waste began to degrade the river plain. The second human-made disaster in six years – the spill was in 2000 and by 2006 millions of bottles, bags and other detritus littered the banks of the river and inspired Attila Dávid Molnár and Tibor Fekete to start the Plastic Cup.

The documentary The Plastic Cup: The Official Story of the Plastic Pirates, LWVMC Green Film Series showing for July 19, recounts the infiltration of plastic in Eastern Europe. Plastic production has ramped up from 50 million tons per year in 1977 to 100 million tons in 1989 to 200 million tons by 2002, and, as the Atlantic Monthly has reported, half of all plastic disposed of in 2017 had been created in the last 13 years. The industry is creating it faster than we can recycle it. Ninety-one percent of it isn’t recycled, 12 percent is incinerated and the rest is buried in landfills or floating in the ocean. National Geographic reported that “If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.”

On the Tisza, where some areas have poor to no waste management infrastructure, trash is shoveled down the banks. (A careless act not uncommon in rural U.S. communities such as northeastern Pennsylvania, where low-income locals in the mid-2000s rented heavy equipment to shovel trash imported from neighboring New York down the sides of ravines.) Where infrastructure is missing or corrupt, individuals have to make do. On the banks of the Tisza, trash spills out the back of neighborhoods and down into the river. Plastic gets embedded in the layers of sediment along the banks. The documentary juxtaposes the plastic-pockmarked landscape against exuberant teams of competitors in their bespoke vessels, at first enjoying the river, something akin to the festive feel of a hot Saturday floating down Indiana’s Sugar Creek.

We see the teams making on-the-fly repairs to keep their hand-made vessels of recycled materials afloat. To win the Plastic Cup, teams design and build their rafts, boats and kayaks using plywood, recycled plastic bottles, among other materials. They earn points in three categories – the speed of the vessel, the distance it can stay afloat and finally the amount of trashed plastic its team collects from the river and its banks.

Some of the vessels have five to seven people, dogs, coolers, grills, awnings and paddleboat fixtures. Some are kayak-style. In the first minutes of the competition, they sunbathe, relax, fish, grill, swim and splash each other. Once the vessels prove water-worthy, they race, and finally, they begin to load 30-gallon bags, which they later fold up to reuse, with bottles that have Fanta, Lift, Lipton, water and other beverage labels, along with plastic bags, digging some from the layers of sediment where sand martins have hollowed out cave nests. They deposit full bags on a main vessel until the end of the trip, then it’s evident how enormous the problem is.

Income levels directly correlate to the severity of the pollution, not because low-income nations and regions are producing the most plastic – high-income nations like the U.S. make more plastic waste per person – but in lower-income nations, there is more mismanagement at the end of the cycle.

Plastic is a petroleum byproduct and at first, humans thought of it as a glorious solution for reducing shipping costs and improving food safety. They also thought it was unlikely to break down. Fifty years into the Anthropocene era, we now know that sunlight degrades it. Small particles from our plastics – polyester and synthetic fabrics, bags, bottles, fishing lines and straws – shed tiny bits and threads that look like plankton to marine life, which consume it, and in turn humans either directly consume the marine life or it finds its way into our food chain. Now plastic is detectable in breast milk and human muscle. Like forever chemicals and pesticides, its full effect on our bodies, pollinators, and the food chain are only beginning to emerge and took only one generation to prove itself a problem.

Those who gathered to watch the triumph of the “Plastic Cuppers” as part of the LWVMC Green Film Series wrapped up with an insightful question from Karen Gunther, the moderator: “What will your takeaways be?” and determined that:

  • Humans are built for joy, exuberance and connection. The communities who participated in the Plastic Cup made the whole experience fun.
  • We’re also made to marvel at beauty and a healthy landscape and ecology are awe-inspiring.
  • When the bottles were retrieved, slashed and smashed before sending to the recycling plant, the “cuppers” re-attached the lids. Small items like lids are likely to slip off the recycling lines and gum up the conveyor belts, as do plastic bags and wrappers.
  • We could do our own cleanup competition on Sugar Creek to get all the Truly and Coors Light “fish” that sink to the bottom of the creek when tubers carelessly lose their trash.
  • Finally, Karen Gunther challenged us to ask ourselves “Do I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?”

The Green Films Series continues on Aug. 9 with two films, including one from local Derek Nelson. Join us in Korb Classroom at 7 p.m.

-The League of Women Vot¬ers is a nonpartisan, multi-is¬sue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.