The First Precept in the age of Plastic

man pushing thousands of pieces of plastic in water

Plastic Kills!

Try going a day without it.  I bet you’ll say you can’t, but I’m going to challenge you anyway.  Because, what if I told you that just by changing one thing in your life, you could save hundreds, maybe thousands of lives?  Would you do it?  I hope so.

When we look to our Buddhist practice for guidance on how to be in the world, one thing stands out:  “I undertake the training to avoid harming living beings.”  That’s the first precept, the first of five that we as lay Buddhists adhere to as a way of life.  But what does it mean to avoid harming others?  Does it mean that as long as I don’t commit acts of murder, I’m good with the precepts?  Actually, no.

dead seal on the beach with plastic wring stuck on its snout

You see, non-harming covers a lot of ground.  When we dedicate ourselves to non-harm, or ahimsa, anything we intentionally do to that causes harm leaves a karmic trace.  There’s that word, though: intentional.

So, if on your way to the subway you accidentally kill a few bugs on the sidewalk, a tiny ant or gnat here or there, you are in the clear as far as the first precept goes.  If, on the other hand, you know that your actions can cause harm, then you must refrain from that action.  And here’s the challenge:  Choose to avoid plastic, especially single use plastic items.  Know that there is no safe limit to using plastic.

What We Know:  Plastic Harms Living Beings

Baby monkey holding a discarded plastic water bottle

David Higgins, National Geographic ‘Your Shot’

We all know by now that plastic does not biodegrade.  It stays on the planet for hundreds or thousands of years, depending on what form it’s in and where, and how, it’s disposed.  This, we know.  And now, after reading this sentence, you’ll know that the ubiquity of plastic is literally choking the life out of our oceans.

Maybe you’ve read recently about the whales that washed up onto the shore, dead from bellies clogged with plastic.  One pilot whale washed up on the shores of Thailand with close to 20 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including 80 shopping bags.

80 shopping bags.  Ask yourself, how many times do you go to the store or even just the corner bodega to buy a bag of chips, and the bag of chips is placed in yet another bag, which you then throw out the moment you leave the store?  How quickly is that bag of chips eaten before it, too, is tossed in the trash to end up who knows where?

Can you be certain that the plastic bag you accept at the point of purchase won’t act as a murder weapon to a hapless creature?  If not, where does that place you on the chain of harming living beings?

Recycling Makes it Okay!

“It’s okay,” you may say, “New York City recycles.”  Are you sure of that?  The facts may surprise you:  Less that 20% of all plastics are recycled worldwide.  While plastic recycling is highest in Europe, at a rate of 30% of all plastic, it still leaves 70% of all plastic not recycled.  The United States?  We recycle a mere 9% of all plastic trash.  And plastic bags aren’t recycled at all.  Where does it all end up?

Graphic showing 365 plastic bags forming the shape of the US flag vs. 4 for Denmark

Photo by Travis Wagner, University of Southern Maine; Bio Intelligence Service

How is it that shoppers in Denmark use an average of 4 plastic bags a year, while those in America use 365 bags a year?  Do they shop more than us?  Eat more than us?  Buy more than us?  Or, do they simply want to take care of the planet more than us?  Are you part of the problem, or the solution?

Well, if you go grocery shopping without your own bags, then it’s safe to say, you’re part of the problem.  Plastic is decimating our oceans, and all living beings in it.  Plastic has now been found in the deepest part of the ocean, in the Mariana Trench.  So, if you’re not using your own bags every time you shop, one could say you’re not fully following the precepts.  Why?

14 Reasons Why

All it takes is 14 pieces of plastic to kill a sea turtle, according to a study by Scientific Reports.  In fact, depending on what it is, one item can kill a sea turtle.  You sea, once a sea turtle has swallowed something, it can’t throw it back up again.  It stays in its belly until, and if, it can be digested.  Plastic bags in the ocean can look just like the jellyfish sea turtles eat.  So anytime we accept a plastic bag from a store, we are putting a sea turtle at risk of death, and a painful one at that.

plastic bag floating in blue ocean water

Noel Guevara, National Geographic ‘Your Shot’

Sea turtles can live up to age 80 (80 years old!) and can weigh anywhere from 90 to 1,500 pounds!  They’re estimated to have been on the planet for 65 million years–by comparison, we’re mere planetary party crashers.  But despite our recent arrival, we’re making headway on eliminating these and many thousand other wondrous creatures.  Sadly, almost all species of sea turtle are classified as Endangered.

Slaughtered for their eggs, meat, skin and shells, sea turtles suffer from poaching and over-exploitation. They also face habitat destruction and accidental capture in fishing gear.  Do we need to add to their problems by the  careless use of single-use bags, straws and take-out containers?

And, as mentioned, it’s not just turtles that pay the ultimate price for out plastic addiction. There are only 350-400 North Atlantic Right Whales in North America today.  These whales, hunted for their blubber and whale oil, were hunted almost to the point of extinction in the 1800s.  These beautiful creatures can measure anywhere from 45 to 55 feet long.

Close-up of a starbucks iced coffee with a girl in the background

Consider ordering that iced coffee–can it possibly cause harm? If so, don’t order one!

These whales have a normal life span of up to 70 years, but ships strikes and entanglement have cut their life span down to an average of 15 years, barely enough time for them to reach maturity.  85% of all Right Whales will suffer entanglement at least once in their lives.

While females can give birth at 9 years, they only give birth every 3 to 6 years.  Meanwhile, sea creatures can die from starvation by ingesting plastic.  Bound up in their stomachs, plastic can make it impossible to digest food.  Isn’t it time we quit making excuses and start doing our part to keep these sentient beings from dying out completely?

What Can I Do?

Here’s the important part.  It’s so important, that we will add updates to help you adhere to your commit to the non-harming of living beings.  Do this first:

  • Do not accept plastic bags at stores, ever.  Remember, when even one bag can kill, there is no safe limit for plastic bags.  Just say no.  Take the zero waste pledge to refrain from plastic.
  • Say no to takeout.  With the exception of pizza, which comes in a box, almost all takeout food comes in single use plastic containers.  Remember, the United States only recycles 9% of its plastic.  Can you be absolutely sure your food containers will be recycled?  If not, just say no.
  • Give straws the send-off.  Humans have been able to live for eons without straws.  They are not necessary.  They induce air into your digestive tract, make teeth more cavity prone, and cause unattractive facial wrinkles.  Still, Americans toss out 500 million straws a day.  You may use a straw for 5 or 10 minutes, but they’re non-recyclable and destroy marine life.

These are just a few of the many things you can do to maintain adherence to the first precept, but they will go a long way to saving lives.  The next time you go shopping, bring your own bags.  Lives depend on it.

“I want to live, just like you!”
Regina Valdez

Regina Valdez

Regina is an Engaged Buddhist and the Community Outreach Coordinator for Buddhist Global Relief. A Buddhist practitioner since 2009, Regina uses the city as a crucible for deepening practice. She's a freelance writer and has lived in New York City for over 20 years.
Regina Valdez

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