Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dear Abby

At our house, reading advice columns to each other is a daily ritual. For many years, we were able to read the two most famous rivals in the genre -- Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby) and her sister Ann Landers. When Abby retired, her daughter took over; something similar was attempted on the Ann Landers side of the family, but I think it has fizzled, at least in our newspaper market area. So we read Pauline Philips (Abby) on a regular basis, along with the other Agony Aunts (as the genre is known in Britain) whenever we find them.

Often we are sympathetic to the poor souls who write in or intrigued by the problems they describe. Sometimes we are compelled to snicker or make snide remarks, and the third letter of May 13 was just such an occasion. A well-meaning reader sought advice on the disposal of plastic jewelry cases. Sometimes Abby goes to the real root of a reader's problem, but in this case she did not. Within minutes, I had grabbed my trusty laptop and fired off my own analysis.

Weeks passed, and gradually I forgot both the letter and my reply, which had been submitted through an online form.  Then a member of Abby's staff called to ask for my permission to publish my letter. Figuring I must have had something useful to say, I consented and the phone call was over before I realized that I had no recollection of what I had written about. So I waited anxiously for the July 6 column, the entirety of which was dedicated to reader follow-up on those jewelry boxes.

I reprint my contribution here:

DEAR ABBY: I have another suggestion for Diana in Lakewood. Quit buying so much stuff!

Recycling is only a partial solution to a wasteful lifestyle. Millions of tons of plastic, no matter how many times it is recycled, end up in our oceans, where Texas-sized flotillas of plastic goo will outlast us all. The key is to generate less in the first place.

When considering a purchase, consider all four "R's": Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Repair. In this case, the option to "Reduce" should be observed by either buying less jewelry, or asking the vendors to quit over-packaging the stuff. -- DR. JAMES HAYES-BOHANAN, PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL GEOGRAPHY
In the end I was pleased -- as I was able to get people thinking, if only for a few seconds, about consumerism AND geography!

Those who are interested in this topic can find it more fully explained at The Story of Stuff. A lot has been written about the plastic flotillas, most recently an article in the Boston Globe about local researchers skimming plastic in the Atlantic, a couple thousand miles from the nearest human settlements. Both the article and the user comments are instructive.

NOTE: Careful readers will observe that I already wrote something about this, under the title The Four Rs -- I guess my enthusiasm got the better of me. But the two reports do emphasize somewhat different aspects of the story, so I am leaving both.

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