The Life I Knew Before Plastic

It seems to have been so long ago. Even my memory of it is now laced with the dust of time, and so much of it recounts my growing up in China in a bygone era. I remember heading to the morning market with my diligent mother, each of us carrying a bamboo-woven basket to haul home our daily groceries.

We went from stall to stall in search of the freshest, most affordable vegetables, meat or seafood for the day, all of it laid out on wooden counters. The vendors would take our orders and weigh them on hand-held scales before placing them in our baskets. The transactions were done in cash, of course, the only way people knew for the last five thousand years.

In my high school days, I often went to the market on my own, tucking a few enamelware boxes and jars into my basket the way my mother had taught me, in anticipation of buying things that needed containers. After so many decades, I can still retrieve images from my memory of those heavy, filled baskets like a collection of colorful still-life paintings.

The most common packaging materials at the time were different-sized brown paper bags, balls of twine mostly made of cotton, straw or hemp, and boxes. The last were reserved exclusively for high-end fashion stores and bakeries, and came embossed with fancy words and drawings.

When we went to a store to get our school supplies or a cut of fabric, our purchases were often wrapped up with string, a thin, pink carbon copy receipt riding on top. If we ran out of soy sauce, cooking wine or vinegar, we would bring our empty bottles to a store to be refilled. Only when a family member accidentally smashed a bottle would we replace it with a new one.

Before we headed to a grain store, we always took a cloth bag or two with us. When the store clerk pulled a lever, rice poured from a pipe attached to the ceiling into a weighing vessel. When he got the right quantity, he unplugged its bottom, sending the rice through a chute toward us. We would be waiting at the other end, holding our bag tightly around the mouth of the chute. The only packaging material we needed was our bags and some string to tie them closed.

Growing up, my favorite shop was a local convenience store across the street. When we saved enough pocket change, my sisters and I would go there to get little treats. We carefully counted out our pennies to buy ice pops wrapped in wax paper, or dried sour plums and sesame candies in small brown bags. Everything tasted especially good when we could never have enough of them.

Now I have plenty of everything, especially food, most of it coming vacuum-packed, plastic-wrapped, canned or bottled. No more getting up at the crack of dawn. No more bamboo baskets. No more of the past. For the last three decades here in America, I've shopped in supermarkets where endless plastic bags wait for me at the checkout counter. Still, I have re-learned to bring along my own bags. It hurts my heart to know that so many birds and animals are choking on the abundance of plastic. It scares me that scientists say we soon will have more plastic than fish in our oceans, in spite of our efforts to recycle. Our prosperity and convenience shouldn't come at the expense of the health of our planet. Perhaps the life I knew before plastic holds lessons on how to best protect our future.

Reflections From The East Column:

By Qin Sun Stubis

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