When a Netflix binge meets an eco-epiphany: how a single TV episode made one viewer confront personal waste habits amid UAE's troubling environmental statistics.
Question: What do you call something that starts off amazing and disintegrates into a hot mess?
Answer: A Ryan Murphy show.
Glee, American Horror Story, Ratched – all Murphy projects, all suffering the same fate of fantastic set-ups and cumbersome plots that fall apart somewhere around the middle. However, there is one that soars above the rest like an eagle, despite its soap opera levels of disbelievability: The Politician. In this Murphy-produced Netflix series, there are a lot of intersecting storylines and most of them are pretty silly. Everyone is sleeping with everyone, and affluent teenagers at a mostly-white high school are hellbent on dismantling their opponent’s public images in a race to be crowned Class President. It’s all fun and games until someone gets poisoned.
While it is certainly campy and eye-rolly, it’s also good fun. The center holds because of Ben Platt who plays the main character Payton Hobart with conviction, self-awareness, vulnerability, and a heaping dose of pathos. Payton, believing from childhood that he would one day become President of the United States, shapes his entire life along those lines. Yet, he is not without moments of unbound compassion, which temper his ambitions. As the connective tissue of the show – all roads lead to Payton – he is tasked with being tremendously conniving and tremendously sympathetic. It works.
I watched the second season in lockdown, wearing a path from my bed to the couch in a half-shocked shuffle. Surprisingly uplifting, and doubly-entertaining with the introduction of Bette Midler as the political advisor to a conniving Senator (by season 2, Payton has entered the Senate race in New York City), The Politician’s main platform is tackling climate change. In order to gain the support of Gen Z and Millennials, Payton enlists the aid of his former political rival Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), who has transformed from a teenage victim of Munchausen-by-Proxy to a beloved climate change influencer, ala Greta Thunberg. Infinity demands that Payton support environmental causes by personally committing to living a life that generates zero waste. “You’ve taken on this issue, possibly in good faith, but your actions don’t match your rhetoric,” she argues in the episode “Cancel Culture”. She delivers a checklist of 15 steps toward zeroing out waste and reducing carbon waste to an absolute minimum that Payton must abide by, or lose the support of her and her millions of social media followers.
Payton complies, going vegan, eliminating single use plastic, switching to all reusable containers, and donating to IATA to offset the carbon emissions of every flight he’s ever taken. However, he refuses the toughest bullet point: taking cold showers only, and using the leftover water for cleaning, cooking, and, yes, drinking.
It’s an engaging plot device, but it got me thinking. The UAE is one of the most wasteful countries in the GCC. According to the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water, over 11 billion plastic bags are disposed of per year, and the average resident uses 450 plastic water bottles a year – the fourth highest level in the world. The more I researched, the more devastating the statistics became. The Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi reports that 50 percent of camel deaths are the result of accidentally consuming plastic waste. Globally, plastic is destroying our oceans, with eight million tons of plastic waste threatening the livelihood of our aquatic habitats.
And it’s not just plastic that’s a culprit. Emissions are devastating air quality in the UAE (and the planet), toxic chemicals are killing coral reefs worldwide, fast fashion is polluting the globe and is the cause of vast human rights violations in the third world, and the list goes on ad nauseum. The UAE, for its part, is well aware of the issue, and has enacted a plan to divert 75 percent of waste away from landfills by 2021, and has enacted strident measures to protect and nurture the environment via the “The Vision 2021 National Agenda”.
As much as individuals have embraced modern convenience to the detriment of the environment, the reality is 100 mega-sized corporations are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions. The bigger they get the more pollution they cause. However, as Infinity Jackson astutely observes in The Politician, “the problem didn’t exist outside of me, I was part of it.” Reader, I felt that.
During the lockdown days in 2020, I had become acutely aware of how much waste I was contributing to landfills. At the office, if the team ordered in, I would carry my garbage to the chute, ignoring the prick of doubt that said, “this doesn’t feel right”. But still, out of sight, out of mind. At home, afforded the leisure time of contemplation, I was analyzing my consumption more. Were my husband and I really filling up a 30 gallon garbage can every three days? That couldn’t be right. And yet, the evidence was in front of me. I was struck by a thought, what right did I have to callously discard items that were permanent, that wouldn’t break down for long after I was gone (it takes plastic 1,000 years to decompose). I pictured myself standing next to a mountain of self-generated trash, like Wall-E on his ruined planet. The image disgusted me.
Unexpectedly galvanized by a single episode of television, and decades of liminal concern about climate change, I decided it was well within my power to tackle the issue in my personal life. Of all of the “unprecedented” outcomes of the recent years, it was radically transforming into a more sustainable citizen that surprised me the most. These are the steps I took.
Not many buildings in Dubai come equipped with recycling units for residents. Mine certainly doesn’t. Instead, I had to outsource the job to someone else. Fortunately, Green Truck exists, and has offered peace of mind. In fact, I pay for the privilege. For 120 a month, I was given a large green bin, which was delivered to my door and is routinely picked up at the same time every Thursday. Green Truck accepts all forms of recycling: cardboard, plastic, electronics, styrofoam, paper, metal, glass, you name it, they recycle it. As a private company, Green Truck has contracts with local recycling factories, so they are the intermediary between segregating the recyclables and delivering them to the factories for reuse as raw materials. That means your waste actually gets recycled, it doesn’t just end up in landfills with everything else.
Periods are already enough of a pain that it’s hard to grapple with the fact that they result in more than 200,000 tons of waste per year in the form of tampons, pads, panty liners, and their packaging. I had never given any thought to making my monthly cycle more sustainable, until this year. I made the switch from tampons to a menstrual cup, which I loved so much that you couldn’t pay me to go back.
My husband is one of the greatest musicians you will ever meet, although he would never say that about himself. As such, throughout his life he has looked up to the greats, and Paul McCartney as one of the greatest of the greats, held surprising influence in my husband’s life. One day, he came home and declared, “We have to become vegetarians.” My face must have registered complete shock as I stared at my carnivorous husband, who literally grew up in what is known as “beef country” in Oklahoma, and who once declared the one thing he would never do is give up meat. “Okay!” I said, readily. I’m all about trying new things.
After he watched McCartney deliver an impassioned speech about his lifelong commitment to vegetarianism, my husband was convinced. In the early days of quarantine, we went vegetarian, or pescatarian rather, as we both love seafood. It’s been a rewarding experience, and when I found that some of my favorite meals were just as delicious without the presence of cow, chicken, lamb, or pig flesh, I decided that a permanent change in the culinary department had been overdue.
Like so many humans, I turned to plants to help me cope during quarantine. Growing something on the sunny windowsill of my apartment felt hopeful; even when things were scary, I was creating life, and nurturing it. I became a ridiculous plant mom overnight, crowding all of the free surfaces in my apartment with greenery. If you came to my house, you would be introduced by name to Silky Nutmeg Ganache the satin pothos, Bowie the wonder plant, Robert Plant the dracanae, Tumi the globe aramantheum, Arabella the lemon tree, Blanche the asparagus fern, and many others. But part of sustainability is creating food sources, so with that in mind I planted coriander, carrots, bell peppers, and onions, my very own makings of a salsa. It’s not exactly the vegetable garden of my dreams, but it’s a start.
A while ago, I wrote an investigative piece about the negative impacts on the environment and human beings that fast fashion has directly caused. At the end of the feature, I swore that I would never buy from sites like Zara, H&M, and the like ever again. And, I’ve stuck with it ever since. But, it wasn’t enough. I needed to make a stronger commitment to sustainable shopping, even though I am purchasing less than ever before because of the pandemic. This year, I have made it a point to research every brand I buy from, and to actively seek sustainable brands to fill my wardrobe with. Net-a-Porter’s ‘Net Sustain’ program has made that incredibly easy, by spotlighting sustainable brands like Arch4, Wwake, and Deadwood, as well as sustainable offerings from Stella McCartney, Gucci, and Theory. A few favorites emerged. Right now, I’m obsessed with Savannah Morrow the Label.