Our planet is drowning in plastic. But we are not helpless to stem that awful tide, and we can even take steps to turn it back. This week, a report by research scientist Jennifer Lavers reminded me once again that one person can make a difference, and issued an inspiring call to action for us to rethink our relationship with plastic.
A Portrait of Hopelessness
Ten years ago, I opened the newspaper to read that the city of Naples, Italy was closing its largest city dump because it could simply not hold any more trash. As a result, an estimated 100,000 tons of garbage was steadily piling up on the streets of Naples, as there was nowhere for it go.
The story featured a photograph of a lone worker dwarfed by a 25-foot-high doorway that framed a solid wall of densely packed garbage. The staggering amount of refuse obviously extended far beyond the borders of that doorframe. To me, a decade ago, that solitary worker pushing his little broom in the shadow of that unfathomable mountain of trash seemed the very embodiment of futility; a modern-day Sisyphus rolling his worthless rock up infinite hills of garbage.
Years later, I thought of that image again when I made the decision to buck conventional wisdom and build my Site:1 audio speaker out of sustainable, instrument-quality tonewoods instead of the plastics that still dominate the audio industry. Plenty of people called me crazy, and I felt a new kinship with that Neopolitan worker who was setting his shoulder to a seemingly impossible task.
This week, I was reminded of that image once again by a story on NBC News about a research report published last Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the unexpected discovery of an astounding amount of trash, not on the outskirts of some sprawling ancient megacity, but on a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There, researchers found an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the shore, almost all of it made of plastic.
Chickens Come Home to Roost
Henderson Island is only six miles long and three miles wide. Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist at at Australia's University of Tasmania, led a 2015 expedition with the report's co-author Alexander Bond and their team to this remote spit of land in the middle of the Pacific to identify factors associated with the collapse of the island's native bird populations. Once they arrived, however, they were so dumbfounded by the enormous quantity of plastic waste on the island that they took it upon themselves to mount a second study in their spare time to catalog the different kinds of plastic and attempt to understand the scope of the problem. The resulting report, gathered over more than three months, estimates that 13,000+ pieces of garbage wash up onto the shore of Henderson Island every day.
Lavers noted that many of the so-called "disposable" plastic items –- toothbrushes, razors, children’s toys -- were familiar to her from her own life. "We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic," the article quoted her as saying. "It's something that's designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and then tossed away."
The report vividly illustrates how the plastic that we use briefly and discard doesn't go away, try as we might to force it out of the frame of our everyday awareness. The rapidly unfolding disaster of plastic waste is creating ecological havoc all over the world, and it is high past time for us to fully confront the cost of our addiction to cheap, disposable plastic goods.
"We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic."
--Australian Research Scientist Jennifer Lavers
The Growing Plastic Plague
Plastic is a non-renewable resource, and can be very challenging to recycle. The average American generates between 88 and 122 pounds of plastic waste at home each year, and over the average lifetime generates 15 tons of plastic waste from food packaging alone. And all that plastic isn’t going anywhere. As Lavers notes in her essay in The Guardian, "Plastic never breaks down, it only breaks up. Sunlight and the ocean waves make plastic brittle with age, fragmenting it into ever smaller pieces. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists somewhere in the world. Plastic is with us to stay and will be in the oceans for millennia to come. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it."
"Every piece of plastic ever made still exists somewhere in the world."
--Australian Research Scientist Jennifer Lavers
The hazards of plastic go beyond the problem of how to safely discard it; it can be dangerous just to keep the stuff around while you’re still using it. While public awareness of the hazards of BPA led to the introduction of BPA-free plastics, most plastics still contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that create hormonal imbalances in the body and those chemicals can still leach into our food and cause a host of adverse health effects including obesity, cardiovascular disease, infertility, and cancer. As Jennifer Lavers puts it, we need to "re-think our relationship" with this synthetic material that is swamping our lives and strangling our planet. The audio industry-- my industry-- is without a doubt a significant part of this problem. But it wasn't always this way.
Garbage by Design
I had my very first stereo system for nearly ten years. I hung on to my second, high-end system for nearly twice that long. But then something funny happened on the way to the digital revolution. I started to adopt and discard music players at a rapid clip. Not that I had any choice in the matter; standards changed, technologies came and went at a breathless pace, and all the while, the number of orphaned devices in my life grew. Infuriatingly, the disposal nature of that technology wasn’t the inevitable side affect of progress, but was instead part of a deliberate corporate strategy. As reported in The Atlantic Monthly, “Electronics have always produced waste, but the quantity and speed of discard has increased rapidly in recent years… As per the report of ENDS Europe agency, built-in obsolescence increased the proportions of all units sold to replace defective appliances from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012. The share of large household appliances that had to be replaced within the first five years grew from 7 percent of total replacements in 2004 to 13 percent in 2013."
I spent many years solving problems for other audio companies, but this problem, that their products were headed ever-faster for the landfill, was considered not a bug, but a feature that kept the dough rolling in, and they didn't want it solved. It made me mad. How dare anyone sell a product that was designed to quickly become useless and add to the ever-swelling landfills? When I made the decision to start my own audio company, I was determined that the products I created would never contribute to that problem, and would instead be designed to be upgradeable and adaptable to whatever the future might bring, and to last. I don't design my Site:1 speakers to end up in a landfill, I design them so your grandkids will fight over them after you're gone.
A Call to Action
I’ve thought about that photograph of that lone worker in Naples pushing his little broom in front of that mountain of garbage many times over the years. The way I think about that picture, however, has changed. Whereas ten years ago I saw that photograph as a terrible symbol of futility, now I see it as an inspirational call to arms. Instead of thinking of the myth of Sisyphus, I think of Jennifer Lavers, rolling up her sleeves, sectioning off one grid of beach at a time, and painstakingly digging out those millions of pieces of plastic, sorting them, identifying them, using them to help us understand this problem, so we can hopefully find solutions to create a better world.
No one person can solve the problem of our disposable society, sure, but I fervently believe that the actions of a single person can make a difference, especially if they are joined by others of like mind. I'm just one guy with an idea. We're just a small shop in a tiny town. But I am proud to say that Princeton Audio is not part of the problem of the growing plague of plastic waste. Instead, we're offering a healthier, greener alternative to those ubiquitous plastic boxes, and a new way of thinking about how you listen to your music. It's not the solution; it is definitely a solution. And it's a start.