Sunday, April 6, 2014

Witches Britches or Ghosts of Dinosaurs?

I wish I’d paid closer attention to my high school chemistry teacher. If I had, molecules and their pairings might confuse me less so I could better understand polyethylene and other carbon polymer products. Despite my lack of comprehension, the intricacies of molecular interactions interest the poet in me. Niggling thoughts waken me in the middle of the night and leave me wondering about the origin of the end product—plastic bags that punctuate my landscape.

. Every household has scores of these mostly white but sometimes clear or blue or other-colored sacks stuffed in funky cloth tubes purchased at a craft fair. Those without handmade containers cram theirs in a bigger plastic bag in the pantry. Though I have far too many of these objects, I find they’re great fillers when I want to mail fragile items or grab an easy lunch container in the morning.

Despite their practical uses, gazillions of them end up in treetops, caught on barbwire fences, or blow across acres of prairie like some wannabe tumbleweed. I don’t know if I can count how many of these ethylene polymer creations I see as I drive 35 miles to work each day. Thank goodness, I don’t live in a heavily populated region. Imagine the totals if I lived in an urban area.

Recently, I saw a bird nest constructed with shredded bits of someone’s old grocery bag. Its tatters fluttered in the breeze like celebratory pennants at a ball game. Another bag trapped by the branches of a prickly red cedar inflated and deflated with the wind like an artificial lung. It looked like some kid’s science fair project gone awry.

An English friend of mine tells me they call these objects witches britches in her hometown. That made my inner bard smile. The white bags caught on a fence or branch do look like a fluttering pair of old-fashioned bloomers. I had to mull a bit to think why someone would associate these with pointy hats and broom sticks. The only thing that made sense to me was that you never find these flapping on a real clothesline. They’re always in the wild, where one might hope to find a perfect storybook hag.

In reality, these containers are refined petroleum products. According to one source, it requires approximately 430,000 gallons of oil to manufacture 100 million bags. The source also stated that Americans alone use more than 380 billion of these products a year.

According to my calculations, that’s a lot of ancient dinosaurs, sea life, palm trees and other carbon sources that Mother Nature compressed into the energy that makes my car run and my house warm. Instead of seeing plastic sacks on the fence or blowing across a pasture, I now envision ghostly tyrannosaurus rexes, stegosauruses, triceratops, and a pterodactyl or two returning to haunt former homelands. Turning such a resource into common litter is a waste. I’d rather drive those drops of ancient reptile juice or use them to keep me toasty than to clutter my landscape. 

Knowing more about where these bags come from makes me appreciate the reusable bags my grocery store recently handed out to customers. Thinking about specters the size of dinosaurs helps me remember my cloth-like sacks when I go shopping.

When I forget, I plan to keep those laboratory-made bags corralled where they can’t catch a Kansas gust and haunt the countryside. I see no reason to invite nightmares into my life.

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