When the first factory-made men’s shirts arrived from America to Quito, Ecuador in the late 1950s, they came in clear plastic bags. I don’t know which of my classmates first realized the potential of the bags as ultra-modern, super-cool book carriers, but when she showed up in school with her books neatly encased in one of those bags, we all longed for the day when we too could discard our hand-tooled leather satchels and replace them with plastic bags.
When my mother finally bought one of those shirts, she let me have the bag. I remember carefully sliding my books and notebooks into it, and admiring the effect of my school things neatly contained by a material that, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, simultaneously protected and revealed them.
But my plastic bag was as fragile as the glass slipper, and after a while the corners of my books made holes in it. I didn’t much care, however, because by then my parents and I were packing our suitcases for our new home in the land of plastic, America.
Before those bags, for the first thirteen years of my life, in Spain and later in Ecuador, I had lived a plastic-free existence. The objects that surrounded me were made of wood, metal, glass, stone, wool, cotton, clay, paper, straw, rubber, or celluloid.
Other than paper, very little was ever thrown away, and objects like the red clay pan in which the maid washed the dishes, or the long bag of unbleached cotton in which she brought the bread home from the bakery, had been around since before my birth, and I thought of them as sort of second-class members of the family.
Other than as containers for dried flower arrangements, who uses baskets anymore? But all through my childhood the eggs, almonds, cherries and sausages that my grandmother shipped to Barcelona weekly from her farm came by train in a deep two-handled wicker basket covered with burlap, and both basket and burlap were piously preserved and returned to her by that same train.
When my mother went to the fish market she carried a flatter basket, its handle looped over her arm. I had a basket of my own, a smaller version of my mother’s.
I loved the fishwives, goddesses who sat enthroned above their displays, wearing blood-spattered white aprons decorated with broad bands of lace.
Fish of all sizes and colors, squid, octopuses, mussels and clams were arranged mandala-like on round wicker trays, and gleamed as brightly as the rose window of a gothic cathedral. After my mother had made her choice, the peixaterawould wrap up for me a single iridescent blue sardine, to carry home in my own little basket.
The Mediterranean of my childhood was crammed with fish, one of the few reliable bounties in those hardscrabble, post-civil war years. Now it, like the rest of the waters on the planet, is having the life choked out of it by millions of tons of plastic—fish-ensnaring, habitat-poisoning, indestructible plastic, most of it in the form of plastic bags.
The plastic bags that had seemed so rare and precious to my schoolmates and me in 1958 have become the banner of environmental destruction. Things must change, and soon. In the words of Joanna Macy, “While the agricultural revolution took centuries, and the industrial revolution took generations, this ecological revolution has to happen within a matter of a few years.” (quoted by Richard Rohr)
The scope of the disaster is so enormous that I often want to just give up. But if optimism is the only moral choice, then I must act as if my efforts count. So in my own small battle for the survival of the planet, I keep my flag—a well-worn New Yorker canvas bag—in the back of the car, and proudly fly it when I walk into a store.