Recently I stood pondering Laudato Si’ and the daily choices we must make to care for our common home in the middle of a grocery aisle – or a few aisles actually.
I was attending a small gathering of friends and agreed to bring the beverages. My immediate thought was to go to the nearby grocery store and quickly buy something. But there were a vast number of options, and most were packaged in different sizes of plastic – liter bottles, quart bottles, individual bottles ... etc… so I moved on from the plastic aisle.
There were promising liter-size glass bottles, and all kinds of aluminum cans - six-packs of 12-ounce cans, and slim 8.5-ounce cans. And in the refrigerated section I found half-gallons of juices in paper-based containers.
I considered all these options using an environmentally friendly thought process. I well understand the problems of overuse of plastics in our society, and at Catholic Climate Covenant we advocate against single-use plastic. While the aluminum cans and paper cartons seemed like wise choices, I know they are coated with an inner layer of plastic, leaving me to conclude that the best ecological choice was the beverages packaged in glass bottles. But glass bottles are heavy to carry and there is a strong potential for breakage during transport, especially without a car.
I threw up my hands and went with the choice that was easiest for me – the liter-sized plastic bottles – which was also the least environmentally friendly option.
When I thought about my choice after my purchase, I realized that I had failed to live up to the need for an “ecological conversion” championed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’. He explains that Christians “all need….an “ecological conversion,” whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” (LS217)
“We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits…” Laudato Si’ continues. (LS27) “People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more.” (LS55)
These words rang true for me.
I am someone with a doctoral degree in an environmental field, yet I recognize that my education alone cannot instill good habits. And while we need stronger climate policies, even the existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct.
For example, recycling in my city is not required by law but is encouraged by city government. Encouragement may not be enough because while I understand that the bulk of the glass, aluminum, and paper does get recycled, very little of the plastic does. This is yet another reason that my choice of purchasing the plastic bottles was the least environmentally friendly option.
“If the laws (in my case guidelines) are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond. Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment.” (LS211)
These teachings about the ecological conversion we need, and my own curiosity as a researcher, led me to explore research on alternatives to plastic bottles. In fact, the United Nations Program for the Environment published a report in 2020 assessing the alternatives to plastic bottles. The report evaluated the environmental impact of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, laminated cartons, and reusable steel and aluminum containers.
My review of this document led me to conclude that I should have gone with the aluminum cans. Sigh. Maybe they will eventually make aluminum cans in the one-liter size.
Laudato Si’, however, speaks of a journey of conversion, and by learning, praying, making better choices every day, and advocating for better policies, I am on that journey – even if it is on the way to a party.
Note: Visit www.godsplanet.us to begin your own Laudato Si’ journey along with other U.S. Catholics, through the Laudato Si’ Action Platform.