Are cottagers contributing to plastics pollution?

Two red solo cups on a white table By Pepijn van Bakel/Shutterstock

“Now that the United Nations has said we only have 12 years to save the planet, I want to know: to what extent are cottagers responsible for the buildup of plastics that are choking the marine environment? Getting rid of drinking straws and disposable plastic bags is a good start. But what else do we need to ban to reduce plastics pollution?”

To the untrained eye, it might appear that cottagers are on somewhat shaky ground when it comes to environmental stewardship. Cottage people are widely regarded as some of the most voracious consumers on the planet, and the fact that we buy two sets of everything, from beds to barbecues, explains why advertisers love us so much. Unfortunately, these characteristics also make it easy to pick on cottagers as a group when it comes to measuring environmental impact. To their credit, most cottagers are well meaning in matters of saving the planet. They are keen recyclers and steadfastly pack groceries in reusable shopping bags when they haven’t forgotten them at home. They use eco-friendly everything and for some reason insist on only buying one-ply toilet paper. I read a statistic somewhere that said 25 per cent of all Swiss-manufactured stainless steel water bottles are purchased by cottagers. Deeds speak. 

And besides, who’s to say that cottagers are to blame for our oceans being choked with discarded plastic? Sure, I’ve seen rocky beaches buried under mountains of flip-flops and plastic bags, but I’d wager that none of that trash came from Charbonneau’s Freshmart in Whitney or the Rosseau Farmers Market. Okay, I joke. But how could any form of a “ban” work, given how much stuff is made from plastic in our world? When it comes to plastic packaging, there is no cheap alternative. If you want some chewing gum or a pack of AAA batteries or some dill pickle chips, plastic packaging is part of the deal. That precut fruit? Ditto. Consumers react positively to fresh, undamaged product that has a perception of cleanliness because it hasn’t been pawed over. Sad but true.

Five ways to reduce plastic at the cottage

At the lake, much of that plastic stuff is the secret ingredient to making good times and happy memories. What would we do without our boats made from fibreglass, a.k.a. fibreglass-reinforced plastic? And what about lawn darts and Frisbees, staples of my cottage childhood? Colourful tablecloths, dock floats, pool noodles, tarps and bug screen and tent pegs. All plastic. It’s everywhere at the cottage. You want to ban plastic? Fine. Then reach into the drawer and toss all those cute yellow corn holders. Not so much fun now, is it?

There is an upside to all this über-consumerism demonstrated by cottage folk, and it may well turn out to be a powerful tool in the crusade against plastic. In other areas of environmental science, there is a lot of work being done on carbon sequestration, a field of endeavour that examines ways to trap CO2 in greenhouse gas penitentiaries known as carbon sinks and thus prevent it from entering the atmosphere.

My theory is that cottagers, who love the latest and greatest, are unwittingly performing sequestration by storing plastic stuff all over their properties and preventing it from entering the ocean environment. Look in or behind any cottage shed and you will find broken bait buckets, old coolers, and cheap plastic lawn chairs, safely stored away from tidewater. If a plastics archaeologist were to excavate under a typical cottage deck, the top layer, the most modern artifact, would be a stand-up paddleboard, the one the kids just had to have because it was so cool. Subsequent layers would reveal a rotomoulded sit-on-top kayak, a wakeboard, a sailboard, a kneeboard, a wake surfboard, a broken pedal boat, and a set of walk-on-water shoes. Turns out cottagers are doing the planet a service. Better yet, the process is dynamic. Because next year the super-cool SUP will be buried and forgotten in the plastic sink, entombed under a super-cool kiteboard, which will in turn be hidden under a super-cool foil surfer.

Plastic sequestration, unfortunately, is a slow process. So cottagers interested in a more timely way to rescue the world’s oceans should consider one simple act: stop buying cases of drinking water in little single-use plastic bottles, when you could simply invest in a water-treatment system. The big 18-litre water cooler jugs can at least be used over and over again. But the little ones? Maybe shipped all the way from Norway or Fiji? They are completely unnecessary when you own a building that sits at the edge of a lake that is full of water. In the context of an average cottage lifestyle, water-purification systems are cheap, and the science behind them is proven beyond dispute. There is no excuse.

Should we ban more stuff? Maybe we don’t need to ban anything but just need to use better judgement about the things we choose. Do I need a straw to drink a rye and ginger or some chocolate milk? Never yet. Do I need a straw (one that bends) so I don’t spill water all over my hospital gown after major surgery? Absolutely. Using a plastic bag for your groceries doesn’t make you a criminal. But using a plastic bag to keep your newspaper from getting damp on the way to the car makes you a suspect. And playing drinking games at the cottage with disposable plastic beer cups? That just makes you pathetic. Because in my experience, you’ve never really lived until you’ve played beer pong with a proper set of lead crystal Kölsch glasses. The smaller openings make the game harder of course. But once you hear the sound of that crystal, ringing like a bell struck with a silver hammer, you’ll never use Solo cups again.

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This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr ’20 issue of Cottage Life.

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