When you hold a styrofoam plate, you hold eternity in your hand.
Plants and animals died millions of years ago and slowly turned into oil. Dozens of machines and probably a hundred people worked to find that oil deposit, bring the oil to the surface, transport it, refine it into polystyrene, produce that foam plate, package it, and transport it to a store.
All so that you could use it for just a few minutes to eat one meal or a piece of cake or a few cocktail nuts.
Then it goes into a landfill. Forever. Long after the party has ended, long after your life has ended, that plastic foam will lie under the ground, unable to return to nature, an eternal memento of the snack you’d probably forgotten a day later.
How’s that for a legacy?
When you hold a real plate, you hold a history of many meals and a connection to the future. It may be your own history and future, or it may be shared with other people, even people you don’t know–depending on the plate. It’s not uncommon for a real plate to last several decades, serving thousands of meals, passing through hundreds of hands, getting covered with all kinds of foods but being washed clean again and again and again.
My church owns an enormous quantity of china dishes, white with green flowers, which I’ve been told date from the 1940s. Those dishes have seen more coffee hours and soup suppers and celebratory cakes and spaghetti dinners than most of the people in our parish. The 90-year-old lady sipping from a green-flowered cup today washed those cups hundreds of times when she was my age, and I hope to be drinking from them when I am old. When I stay late after an event, washing dishes while chattering with my friends, of course I notice the repetitive manual labor involved in caring for our dishes (lather, rinse, repeat…), but also I think of the many happy hours our parishioners have put into caring for those dishes together. They may be unremarkable, out of style, and scratched by generations of enthusiastic forks, but those are our dishes. Parishioners I never knew donated those dishes before I was born so that our parish family could enjoy meals together. Every plate and cup and saucer ties us to them and to all the people since and all the people yet to come who will eat from those dishes and wash them and put them back on the shelf for next time.
How’s that for a legacy?
Look again at that styrofoam plate: Prehistoric lives filtered down through millions of years to make that plate for you alone to use in one moment and consign to eternity alone in the ground, forgotten, useless, wasted. You–or the person who chose disposable dishes for this event–spent money on instant garbage. Was it worth it?
Copyright 2009 Rebecca Stallings. Please contact becca [at] earthlingshandbook [dot] org if you would like to reprint this article in your church newsletter or other publication.