By June Rogers
Sitting at a café patio stirring sugar into my latte, I hated myself for using a Styrofoam cup, a plastic lid and a spoon. Ugh! Too much plastic everywhere. I sipped the hot, bittersweet brew, tapping out an order on my smartphone for take-out chicken and French fries for dinner. My baby slept in a stroller at my feet.
The patio darkened under a thick thundercloud. Out of nowhere, a black plastic spoon bounced off the table onto the ground. I thought it curious but resumed scrolling through my social media pages. A strong wind blew my cup over. I looked up. A dozen pink and blue and yellow spoons fell out of the sky, then hundreds and hundreds more. My baby woke up and cried, so I covered his head with a blanket and pushed the stroller into the café. I couldn’t fathom what was happening.
I watched with dread as passersby kicked at the spoons littering the sidewalk, tires crunched them on the road, trucks bulldozed them against the curb, bicyclists crashed as their wheels spun out of control. Up in the neighboring office tower, workers gathered at windows and gaped at the shocking spectacle. It got worse. Plastic knives, forks, plates, straws, bags, pop bottles, packages, balloons, syringes, tampon applicators, sponges and sunglasses rained down, too. The fishing nets were the worst. They fell on people like a hunter throws a net over a wild animal.
My husband called from the airport to tell me his plane had been delayed. “The runway is impassable and the skies impenetrable. I’m going to get a hotel room and try to wait this freakish thing out, whatever it is.” I reassured him that the baby and I were safe inside the café but wasn’t sure how we were going to get home.
Huddled with the rest of the café patrons staring at the TV, I watched the mayor as he ordered everyone to stay indoors. Various international news media outlets reported the plastic deluge was occurring in Europe, Asia, India, Africa, South and North America, in villages, on prime agricultural land, over mountains. The world was slowly coming to a standstill as tons and tons of plastic rubble covered the surface of the Earth.
Breaking news footage from a steamship showed water spouts in the North Pacific gyre sucking up debris from a 1.6 million-square-kilometer floating island of plastic. The Society of Meteorologists explained that the waterspouts formed purple-black clouds that carried the garbage along continental jet streams. Water spouts were also vacuuming up plastic in the other four gyres in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and North and South Atlantic.
I picked my baby up and cuddled him. But I was the one who needed comforting. What was I going to do?
A young man from the café offered to walk me and the baby home under his large umbrella. We made it safely but I was pretty sure my fast-food chicken order would not be delivered, which in a way was a good thing, right? No extra plastic! I rummaged through the pantry for tuna and crackers. The freezer was full of frozen pizza, the cupboard canned peas and beets. I had enough baby food to last for a few days.
In bed that night, I couldn’t sleep listening to the sound of plastic pinging off the roof, the car, which was already up to its windshield in plastic, and halfway up the six-foot fence, like a plastic blizzard. Soon enough, I wouldn’t be able to open the front door.
The next morning, plastic still falling, I called my husband. “Honey, I’m scared. What should I do?”
“Stay put. I’m obviously not going to fly out to Chicago while all of this is going on. Everybody is in the same boat.”
My FaceBook news feed featured people from London and Nairobi to Rio and New Delhi demanding action. Prominent oceanographers warned heads of state that the only solution was to immediately stop dumping plastic offshore. The dirty plastic was making millions sick. I felt sick and I worried my baby would get sick. An emergency meeting at the United Nations called upon world leaders to halt all ocean disposal and to put up barriers along rivers to catch the offending bits and pieces of debris flowing into larger bodies of water.
After putting the baby down for a nap, I turned on the TV. Officials were making plans to force shut-downs of factories that produced plastic toy trucks and dolls, plastic vitamin bottles and catheters, plastic toothbrushes and combs, as well as plastic flip-flops and costume jewelry, plastic hangers and hooks, plastic cables and plugs, along with plastic pens and scotch tape, plastic garden pots and watering cans, plastic siding and plumbing. The petrochemical industry shuttered its refineries, throwing millions of people out of work.
After seven days and seven nights of plastic freefall, it finally stopped. City maintenance crews around the world began the clean-up. I wondered where they were going to put the mounds of plastic. I visualized landfills turning into mountains of rotting garbage, incinerators spewing toxic particles.
But over the next few weeks, a strange thing happened. Plastic factories and the petrochemical industry remained closed. As demand grew for new containers, glass jar companies hired more workers. The urgent need for environmentally safe products caused bamboo toothbrush manufacturers, metal cutlery plants, and terra-cotta garden pot warehouses to flourish.
Ocean currents flowed free of debris once more. No longer did whales, dolphins, and turtles die of plastic ingestion. Fishing vessels ceased dumping their netting overboard.
When the café patio re-opened several months later, I pulled out a pencil and a pad to make a grocery list for dinner. As I stirred my latte with a silver spoon, it clinked against the ceramic mug. At my feet, my boy played with a wooden toy train on the sweet-smelling cedar deck. His father took his business trips to Chicago by train.