Karma, Bottled

Our intrepid, water-drinking reporter decided to break off her relationship with plastic. That’s when the past came back to haunt her.

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Mother Nature kicked my ass. I’m lying in bed barely able to move, and now, I get it. I deserved this. Somehow, after years of contributing plastic water bottle waste to the Pacific Ocean garbage patch, I had this coming.

I’ve consumed hundreds, (OK, thousands) of bottles of water over the years. It started with the marketing-created concern that somehow the bottled water was cleaner, more purified, than tap water, although I drank tap water throughout my childhood and emerged as a healthy, albeit environmentally criminal, adult.

Then it became convenience: You go running, you take a bottle of water. You go to the gym, you take a new bottle of water. You go for a drive, you take yet another bottle of water.

Then there was the cat factor. In my house, the cat helps himself to all glasses of water, which is disgusting. A bottle with a lid is cat-proof.

There are reasonable solutions to all of this, I know. Get a stainless steel bottle and refill it. Or teach your cat some manners. It’s that easy. Right?

Still, I plundered on, hauling crates of bottled water home from the grocery store, week after week. Never has there been a less efficient method of supplying water. It takes 47 million gallons of oil to produce the amount of plastic water bottles Americans use each year. The cost of bottled water—I routinely paid about $4 for a crate of 24—is largely due to the bottle, not the water. But this didn’t stop me.

I even ignored stories that suggested water from these plastic bottles causes cancer, particularly when the bottle is exposed to heat or frozen. Pshaw. I continued to buy them. Drink from them. Toss them into the recycling bin.

The bin gave my conscience a green-wash, even though I’d toured the Republic Services recycling center and learned that really, recycling plastic relies on finding buyers who want to undertake the expense of processing it, often to make products that are not recyclable themselves.

There’s an eerie pervasiveness of plastic, generally. It freaks me out. I always think of this scene from The Graduate, the 1967 movie in which Dustin Hoffman’s character has just finished college and is considering his future. His neighbor, Mr. McGuire, advises him:

— I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

— Yes, sir.

— Are you listening?

— Yes, I am.

— Plastics.

— Exactly how do you mean? — There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

In its sublime absurdity, the line is nonetheless prophetic. I look around me and see, with some alarm, that almost everything is some kind of plastic: the chair, the TV, the light switch, the thermostat, the milk carton, the yogurt container, the grocery bags, the car. I am nesting in plastic; ingesting it. According to the EPA, the world’s annual consumption of plastic has gone from 5 million tons in the 1950s to 100 million tons today. Mr. McGuire was so right. Plastics.

Soon, we’ll all be plastic hybrid beings of some sort. But first, we’ll kill other creatures and screw up the planet. It’s a short hop in my mind from The Graduate to the Pacific Trash Vortex. Apparently, there is a trash dump the size of Texas floating in the northern Pacific, a large part of which consists of plastic bottles. It kills fish and birds and seals and snails, and masses of it wash up on once-pristine beaches. It’s the physical manifestation of our wasteful habits, and it’s lying in wait to kill us.

Usually, at this point in my brief inner dialogue about plastic, I opt for lazy ignorance and change the subject. But the other day, I finally decided to do something, a small something, about the situation. I decided to end my relationship with plastic-wrapped crates of 16-ounce plastic water bottles in favor of getting a water service to deliver 5-gallon reusable jugs. The cat would learn to abstain from open glasses, or I would find a stainless steel bottle. This decision was horrendously overdue.

When the water jug was delivered—let’s sidestep the environmental impact of having your water delivered weekly by a fuel-hogging truck, shall we?—I stooped to move my last crate of bottled water from the floor to the kitchen counter.

The last one.

I bent, from the waist, grabbed the crate, hoisted it up, lost balance and felt the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt rip through my back: vengeance. It was Mother Nature, the Pacific garbage heap, the years of profligate consumption, the comeuppance for choosing lazy ignorance, all coming home to roost in my lumbar vertebrae.

I shrieked. I cursed. I whined. By nightfall, I could not move without feeling the stabbing pain endured by every adorable creature I ever killed with a plastic bottle.

The doctor assures me that in time, I will heal—physically, if not mentally.

But today, in physical agony, I’m lying in bed in excruciating pain. It takes everything I’ve got to reach to the nightstand for a glass of water—taste-tested by the cat, no doubt—and some painkillers.

Painkillers. In a plastic bottle.