Updated on March 15, 2018
The Safina Center
80 North Country Road
Setauket, NY 11733
Updated on March 15, 2018
By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad Fellow”
Normally half-way through Lent I’m considering jumping ship on my resolutions, not taking on another one. Each year I give up chocolate, processed sugar, sometimes refined carbs thus functionally transforming the 40-day fast from a religious discipline to a glorified diet. When friends ask me the point of Lent, I explain that it’s multifaceted: we deprive ourselves of luxuries as Jesus did in the wilderness, we use the hunger we feel as reminders to pray; we take this time to reflect and reorient our noisy, busy inner-lives towards our faith. Although giving up my evening Hershey’s Kisses is certainly a sacrifice, I doubt it brings me closer to my Creator. This year, the outmoded way many Christians approach Lent is sparking a dialogue about how the season can possibly better connect us to both Creator and Creation.
Growing up in the Anglican church, I’ve spent a lifetime of Sundays praying “for the good earth which God has given us, and for the wisdom and will to conserve it.” Yet I’ve rarely seen these sentiments put into action. A major tenet of Christianity, and indeed many religions, is responsible stewardship of creation. However, if you skim through popular evangelical websites, there’s much more attention on social morals than applying ethics to our environmental interactions. Go to any post-service coffee hour and the trashcans full of plastic cups and stirrers aren’t encouraging either.
All this considered, I was surprised that the Church of England asked parishioners to give up not cursing, or lying, or red meat, but plastic, for Lent. This is the first time the Anglican church has called for such widespread action. “The Lent challenge is about raising our awareness of how much we rely on single-use plastics and challenging ourselves to see where we can reduce that use,” the Church’s environmental policy officer Ruth Knight told the New York Times. “It ties in closely with our calling as Christians to care for God’s creation.”
When first reading the announcement, I had two thoughts. One: Ugh I totally forgot this trail mix has m&m’s so I already ate things I shouldn’t have today. Two: Giving up plastic is impossible. A funny thing happens when you abstain from something you depend on; you realize it’s unavoidably everywhere. Give up smoking? Suddenly every street corner features someone lighting up, and a spotlight seems to settle on the packages of cigarettes in the check-out isle of the grocery store. Give up candy? Suddenly every restaurant seems to have a dish of mints and all your friends are asking you to spilt Twix bars and share their Reese’s (which they never seem to do during not-Lent).
Consider giving up single-use plastic? I thought about it this morning, as I peeled the wrapper off a straw for my smoothie, made from frozen berries that arrived in a plastic bag, carried from the store in yet another plastic bag. I thought about it at the gym as I bought a bottle of water and made use of the free wet-wipes after my workout. I thought about it again as my boyfriend and I went out to the movies, plastic bottles of soda and crinkly bags of popcorn in tow to avoid concession-stand prices. When you fast, you realize what you consume is everywhere. Then again, that’s also the core function of a fast, especially an ambitious one. Some years, we fast from everything but water to remind ourselves how many people also wake up hungry daily but have no promise of food to look forward to after. The absence is a call to spiritual awareness, and then to action.
That doesn’t make a plastic purge any less daunting. The church, anticipating this, released a Lenten calendar with daily prompts for small changes. It’s the first time I’ve seen reusable razors and plastic-free packaging combined with quotes from the Gospel of Mark. Invocations include action items like skipping Styrofoam clam-shells, choosing to stream videos rather than purchase DVDs, and avoiding mini-bars with their buffet of single-serving snack-packs (which are often overpriced anyway). Rereading the calendar, I realized these suggestions were both creative (bamboo toothbrushes?) and doable (how often have I left my reusable shopping bags in the house rather than keeping them handy in my car?). Suddenly the Lent Challenge felt a little more realistic.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from calendar is the instructions for Lent’s final days. By this point each year I’m dreaming of chocolate rabbits and foil-covered Cadbury eggs. As this Easter season dawns we’re asked to not only continue our plastic fast but expand the circle of action. Reach out to your friends, your politicians, your local corner store. Share your testimony (in this case of reusable water bottles rather than the resurrection). Reflect on your fast, consider which options were the easiest to sustain, and think about how to augment them. Switched from bottled soaps to bar soaps? Consider buying in bulk to avoid unwrapping a new Unilever bar every few showers. Maybe he wasn’t taking about cleaning supplies but James 2:26 said it first: “faith without action is dead.”
I think of the trappings I normally associate with Easter: bright plastic baskets where colored eggs nest in cellophane grass and hinge open to expose single-serving candies and cheap children’s toys. Consider new ways to decrease your post-Lenten plastic use? I can think of a few.