My Oma turns 88 years old this Sunday. She is a graceful woman that exudes warmth and love from her every sun-kissed pore. With 6 kids and nearly 20 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she is our matriarch, our confidant, our hero. Her mind is sharp and witty thanks to crossword puzzles and Jeopardy. She swims in the Chesapeake Bay every summer despite her creaky bones and sore ankles. She threads squirming worms onto fishing hooks with iron nerves and catches more bass off her dock with her antique rod than anyone else in the neighborhood. One of my favorite things to do with Oma is reminisce about her younger years. I’m hungry to know every bend, rise, and fall of her wandering road of life. I ravenously pester her with questions, trying to memorize all the open space that was her life before she was “Oma”. On the phone the other day, with a whole rambling country between us, our conversation found its way to her life before plastics.
Let’s travel back to the halcyon days of my Oma’s youth, to a time where plastic had yet to become king of consumer habits. Long before the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” came to dominate sustainability jargon of our time, Oma was sipping milkshakes out of sturdy paper straws at the ice cream shop, bringing her own bags to the market, and leaving glass milk bottles on her back porch to be recycled by the milkman. She lived a plastic-free lifestyle for her first twenty years. Even the most diligent environmentalist today would admire and strive for Oma’s model of sustainability in the 1930s and 40s. The von der Heyde family was not the only family living this practical, sustainable lifestyle, and they certainly were not doing it for the environment. It was simply what you did before plastics became popularized; it was what everyone did.
Times change, and old norms are forgotten as new norms take their place. Spring becomes summer, summer leads to fall, winter leads to eating fruit snacks that “taste just like real fruit” out of plastic packaging instead of eating an apple. Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, was invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907. However, plastic wasn’t popularized until around 1950. During WWII plastic production increased by 300% in the U.S. After the war ended, there was no stopping plastic’s march into every home in America and around the world. Today plastic packaging often feels like a Russian nesting doll, leaving you wondering as you peel back layer after layer of plastic if there’s even any food inside.
Oma now has a kitchen stocked with plastic straws, plastic mini bottles of orange juice, and pre-made plastic-wrapped food. To say things have changed in her lifetime is an understatement. Oma is once again part of the majority, but this time our consumer habits are detrimental to the environment, our health, and the future. We have a plastic problem, and it’s time to stop. But where to start? It’s overwhelming to tackle a problem that feels so gigantic and untouchable. Let’s start somewhere small. Let’s start with the plastic straw.
According to the National Park Service, Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day. These single-use plastic straws require large amounts of oil to be made, they take up space in landfills, and they often find their way into our oceans. Saying “no thank you” to plastic straws is a small step we can take to make a difference for our earth now and for future generations. Sustainable choices do not have to be sacrifices. Using reusable metal straws (buy here) or paper straws is a simple change we can all implement. Oma switched from paper to plastic straws in her lifetime. Is it possible to turn the tide once again and revert back to simple sustainability? Of course. Oma’s story is proof of how quickly a norm can transform. This time we are making a change for the better by giving up our plastic straw habit. Happy Birthday Oma, I love you and the halcyon days of your past and the golden days of your future.