It didn’t happen quite like that. But it might’ve if Mr McGuire could’ve foreseen where plastics might lead Ben.
It’s in the film, The Graduate, when a squirm-inducing party’s underway. Soignée women smoking. Slippery men drinking – oozing worldly wisdom and capitalism unbridled. Sort of.
Sleazy Mr McGuire takes Ben aside in a rather creepy manoeuvre. Tells Ben he should consider a career in plastics – because it’s the future.
How right he was.
Today there’s barely anything that once was paper or cardboard or wax or rubber – or whatever – that isn’t now plastic.
I went for a walk on our nearby beach yesterday. It’d been – ooh – roughly three months since last I was there, thanks to the wind and the rain. Yes, since mid-October there’s been barely a day without rain.
On England’s north-west coast it’s a hazard of habitation, precipitation.
This sanity-sapping rain brings with it a phenomenon that most people probably never consider.
But I worked in the water industry – and I do.
You see, sewage treatment and sewerage systems all rely on pipes.
Smallish ones take water-borne human waste away from our homes. Bigger ones join up all the homes. In cities, with large populations, even bigger ones deal with the effluent of homes and of businesses.
Sewers big enough to walk through. Believe me, I’ve done it.
All these pipes lead to treatment works. Some small, tucked down country lanes. Some massive, on city peripheries and industrial estates. Varying in complexity and efficacy.
But no matter how big, or complex a works, no matter how many pipes and drains are running clear, there’s always a deluge that can overwhelm the system.
And all around our coasts, overflows operate when there’s just too much rain.
Patches of speckled blue twinkled up at me everywhere – mostly shell fragments. But among them were other things.
Panty liner wrappers and backing.
I didn’t see any cotton buds – also often blue. But they’re slender and easily missed.
And, seeing all this plastic, sewage-borne waste – plus the synthetic maritime ropes, plastic bottles and other detritus of nearby shipping – I thought about The Graduate and Benjamin.
Poor Benjamin, target of sleazy men’s career advice. Soon-to-be-lover of Mrs Robinson.
When that film was made people were already worrying about plastics.
The almost everlasting nature of the beast. The finite petroleum products used in their manufacture.
The waste of natural resources and the burden on our ecosystem.
My dad was one of those concerned people.
And I’ve followed in his footsteps.
The replacement of renewable materials with plastics is my particular bugbear.
Cotton buds, for example. The sticks used to be made of cardboard.
Tampon applicators used to be made of … cardboard.
Condoms – no, don’t be silly, they were never made of cardboard. But they were made of rubber. And lamb intestines. Both renewable resources. Well, not to the lambs I accept.
Anyway. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are now condoms made of newer materials: polyurethane, polyisoprene and – in the case of the female condom – nitrile. And even latex is often synthetic, not rubber, nowadays.
You can look these materials up if you’re interested – but where this is going, as you possibly guessed – is that all these synthetic materials are manufactured using petroleum products.
And so many things that once were made of paper or wood or rubber now are now made from plastic.
Paper plates. Paper cups. Drinking straws. Bags for greengroceries.
Trees are used to make paper.
Trees put oxygen into the atmosphere. They help stop floods – oh, wait, do you suppose?
Plant a tree, folks, help stop flooding and oxygenate the world!
Buy recyclable products – and I don’t mean plastic ones.
I know someone will tell me that we waste more resources and use more chemicals making and recycling paper blah blah blah – I don’t believe it! You can prove anything with statistics and the fact remains, petroleum is a finite and polluting resource.
But even if you don’t agree.
Panty liner backings are slippery creatures and can make their way through most mechanical filters. So can cotton buds.
And sometimes, what’s worse, these things go through a shredder, so that countless tiny bits of plastic end up in the sea. Pretending to be plankton. Being eaten by mammals.
Do you want that, really?
Do you want our beautiful sea life – our porpoises and dolphins and whales and seals – to swallow your cast off plastics, so carelessly disposed of?
No, of course you don’t.
Bag it. Bin it. Don’t flush it.
And be like Benjamin. Ignore Mr McGuire.