An Interview with Rev. Jennifer Fair on her Lenten Practice

By Rev. Cal Nevenzel

  1. So, Jenn, why fast from plastic? What first inspired you to do a Plastics Fast for Lent?

Last year, I was browsing through some news articles on Facebook on Fat Tuesday.  I stumbled on this one:  https://metro.co.uk/2018/02/14/best-thing-give-lent-plastic-not-chocolate-7312789/.  This article really challenged me to connect my fasting with activism, a connection which has existed since the early Church but hadn’t quite connected in my own practice.  I also believe that, if you can’t refute a position, you have to accept it.  So, without planning, I decided to “fast” by throwing away and acquiring as little plastic as possible.

As far as “why plastic”, short answer is that plastic is an environmental disaster.  Biologically, every living thing makes waste, but that waste is supposed to break-down into its organic compounds and be “recycled” by the ecosystem.  Plastics disrupt that system.  Most plastic is made from fossil fuels, and it never truly becomes organic again; “biodegrade” means that it breaks down into micro- or nano-plastics, which are so small they enter the food chain.  Plastic waste is not only unsightly, but it is wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems (the fact that I’m originally from Maryland gives me a soft spot for marine environments).

The thing is, I knew all this before my fast, but in my mind that meant not putting recyclables in the trash; it wasn’t really thinking about non-recyclable plastic! 

2.  How do you see such a fast as relating to your faith and drawing you closer to God?

              Honestly, growing up I didn’t have a connection between faith and activism.  Looking back on it, I had an escapist view of religion; the point of religion, I thought, was to get us away from this mess!  My background is in the Mercersburg tradition of the United Church of Christ (I would love to more in depth on this some other time), which is an Incarnation-based theology.  The Christology is high, and the worship and practice is soaked in sacramentalism and historicity.

              When I was in seminary, the full implication of the Incarnation finally dawned on me: God loves stuff!  In other words, matter matters to God.  Salvation encompasses bodies as well as “spirits” and is not limited to humanity, but encompasses the entire material creation.  This was the link I needed to see activism, specifically environmental activism, as a spiritual act.  This brings me closer to God by making me care about the same things God cares about; this world God created and gave us responsibility for.

3. What has been your biggest challenge?

              It’s a tie between two.  The first challenge is simply that I haven’t found a way to be completely free of plastics.  Eventually, something I need will be wrapped in non-recyclable plastic.  There is no such thing as a packaging-free store near me.  Eliminating plastic would mean “reinventing the wheel” in the case of many of the mass-produced items we use every day.  And sometimes, a suitable non-plastic solution simply does not exist or is not available.

              The second is that “quitting” plastic opens up a whole new set of ethical issues.  Paper and glass are renewable, but have their own environmental impact; same goes for metal.  For example, canvas tote bags can be worse environmental impact than plastic bags, because cotton needs a lot of water and nutrients to grow.  “Permeant” plastic items are better than disposable, but still require a creation process that is harmful to the environment.  Sometimes the cheapest and heathiest food, such as lots of produce, or dried beans and legumes, are only sold in plastic.  Is a locally-made item with plastic better than a mass-produced item with no plastic?  Is organic tea wrapped in plastic better and conventional tea without plastic?  Should I forgo a fundraising dinner for a good cause because they are using Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils?  I suspect different “fasters” will have their own opinion on these matters. 

4. What have you learned that you didn’t realize or think about before?

              In addition to the environmental system, plastics use intersects with a lot of systems of injustice.  Plastic items/packaging are usually cheaper than non-plastic ones, meaning that non-plastic items are “out-of-reach” for the poor.  This applies both to the problem of plastic pollution in developing countries, and to poor(er) folkx in the US.  This not only includes the “purchase” price of non-plastics, but the cost in space (for storage) and the cost in convenience (and thus time) that makes non-disposable items/packaging out of reach for some consumers.  Serious discussion about eliminating plastics will have to contends with these costs to consumers.

              Racism and ableism also play a part in in the plastics-use cycle.  Of course, people of color are more likely to suffer from the environmental effects on plastics disposal, because waste disposal sites are often located in communities of color.  Disabled folkx are disproportionally reliant on disposable plastics, not by choice, but because those things they need to function in a society biased toward the “typically -abled” are made with disposable plastic.  A good example was the choice by some restaurants to eliminate single-use, bendable straws.  While the intention may be good, a sturdy-but-bendable straw can mean the difference for a disabled person between being able to drink and not!  It’s clear that solutions to the plastics problem need to have poor folkx, disabled folkx and people of color at the table.

5. What are your takeways from this fast?

              As I alluded to earlier, this fast has really “filled in” what was a weak point in my theology.  I had “faith” and “activism” in different mental compartments.  What I was missing was the leap from orthodoxy to orthopraxis.  An Incarnational theology demands that beliefs be embodied.  I had also thought of “activism” as marching and waving signs, that kind of thing.  Now, to me, “activism” is a part of my everyday decisions: what I buy, what I throw away.  Really, “activism” and “stewardship” have become one and the same to me.

              Also, when people talk about breaking the plastics-use cycle, they often play the “blame game”; either it’s the consumers’ fault for buying plastic, or it’s the manufacturer’s fault for making it, or it’s the retailer’s fault for stocking it.  Let’s stop with the “blame game.”  No matter where we fall in the supply chain, we can all do something to disrupt the cycle.  If enough consumers vote with their dollars, retailers and manufacturers will change.

6. What resources, tips, and words of wisdom do you have for others who may want to take on this challenge?

       Honestly, your greatest resources in decreasing your disposal of plastics are your imagination, creativity, ability to learning from mistakes and willingness to stick to it.  So, two words of wisdom, and then some practical advice:

Words of Wisdom:

  • Be prepared: I keep a supply of reusable straws in my car at all times.  During Lent, I keep reusable shopping bags as well.  Soon, I may include a reusable container for leftovers when I go out to eat. Think of your activities throughout your day when you will interact with disposal plastic, and come up with an alternative.
  • Be patient: You will probably find yourself in a situation using plastic you didn’t plan to use, or you find a case where you can’t find an alternative.  Don’t beat yourself up.  Forgive yourself, make a mental note of it, and keep looking for the alternative. 

For practical advice, I would start off by saying that, growing up in a Scottish/Dutch family, I loathe spending money.  So, in my mind, tips come in two varieties: those that cost little to no money, and those that require some financial investment.

  • Little or no money:
    • Bags: I have enough reusable shopping bags that I got for free.  Even if you don’t have those, backpacks, tote bags and even “single-use” grocer bags you have lying around can be used for your next shopping trip.
    • Food containers: I have never bought a food storage container.  A lot of the food I buy comes in glass jars or sturdy plastic, which I just wash and reuse.
    • Reuse/upcycle/life hack: This applies to a lot of packaging, not just plastic.  It helps to pause before throwing anything out and think, “What else can this be used for?”  I still love how I showed my uncle, who has a PhD., how to make a funnel out of a plastic bottle!
    • Rethink how you wrap: Wax paper, parchment paper, and aluminum foil can wrap a sandwich just as well as plastic.
    • Farmer’s market: a great way to get plastics-free produce.  You might want to bring your own bags, just in case.
    • Plan your meals and cook as close to “scratch” as possible: this helps decrease the non-recyclable packaging common on convenience foods, as well as the Styrofoam that take-out usually comes in.
    • Don’t buy bubble-wrap: When I send packages, I reuse bubble wrap I received with a previous package, or I use crumbled-up newspapers or paper “trash”.
    • Bring your own cup: Most coffee and fast food places will let you use your own reusable cup.  My best friend from seminary keeps a ceramic cup in his car.  I used to make fun of him for that.  Now I know he is THE MAN. 
    • “No straw”: make sure you say that while ordering your drink at a restaurant.
  • If you are ready to spend some money, my advice would be to get the following, in this order: reusable straws (for taking a drink “to-go”), reusable produce bags, beeswax clothes (for wrapping food!), and an attractive “mess kit” (plate and utensil set) for those wonderful Styrofoam-plate situations!  Reusable travel cups for hot and cold drinks are also a must.  They even make reusable lids for ceramic coffee cups now.

Just remember the three Rs: reduce your plastic intake, reuse as much as you can as many times as you can, and recycle when you have no more use for it.

6. Anything else you want to share?

Don’t be overwhelmed!  No one can do everything, but everyone can do something!  Doing something is better than doing nothing!

—Answers by Rev. Jennifer Fair

Pastor of Union Church UCC in Tekonsha, MI

Follow Jenn on Facebook to see her updates:               https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.fair.146

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