Jun 23, 2010 at 5:00 am

Last Thursday morning, while listening to Laurie Anderson’s Big Science on my iPod, I went to pour some milk in my coffee, and the little plastic ring from the milk jug cap fell into my cup. It struck me as funny. I laughed out loud. And then, as it floated there, a little blue circle in a little sea of brown, inside a slightly larger circle of white, I think I went into a trance for a moment.

It struck me as kind of beautiful and sad and funny all at the same time, not that I could explain it or expect anyone to understand, but for just an instant, I felt a strange peacefulness. As the moment passed, I became wistful, and, smiling, I removed the plastic ring, threw it away and went on with my business. It was a simple problem with a simple solution.

Later that day, an article on The Miami Herald website caught my attention. It was a report about a university forum on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. As part of a panel discussion, Jorge Pinon, a 32-year oil industry veteran, said, “Every time I go by a Toys R Us store and I see a full parking lot, that is good news for oil.”

Setting aside the logical error of the implication that Pinon’s perspective is a prerequisite to his conclusion (i.e., a full parking lot at Toys R Us is arguably “good” for the oil industry whether Mr. Pinon sees it or not), his point was clear: It is only by drastically reducing our consumption of oil and petroleum byproducts, like plastic, that we might avoid future cataclysms like the one currently destroying the gulf.

Meanwhile, all last week, I had been looking forward to taking my son to see “Toy Story 3” (in 3-D!), but I was suddenly quite chapfallen. The “Toy Story” trilogy has been a main offender in the realm of plastic consumption over the last 13 years.

Still, there is undeniable genius in the “Toy Story” franchise. We have seen numerous adventures as they have been imagined by Andy, the boy to whom the toys belong. And we have also seen the secret lives of the toys, the incredible things that happen when nobody is looking. Curiously, these “secret” stories have always involved the danger of the toys being lost or separated from their owner.

As with the previous installments, “Toy Story 3” is a stunning, heartbreaking adventure. This time, the threat of separation comes as Andy, now almost fully grown, is packing to go to college. It is his intention to store his toys in the attic, but a mix-up has them misplaced at the curb with a garbage truck approaching.

Thereafter, they find refuge in a beautiful daycare center, but the idyllic promise of this arrangement quickly turns into a nightmare with a series of references to various prison camp films. The adventure ends, as did the previous two, with an edge-of-your-seat race against time, as the group runs for their lives on a conveyor belt feeding into a huge incinerator. As they realize their efforts are hopeless, the toys have a moment to make peace with their fiery fate, appreciating, at the very least, that they stayed together to the end.

There is, of course, a last-minute rescue … and a reunion with Andy that ends with a brilliant bit of maturity on the part of the young man. With one last demonstration of his imagination and his faith in his toys’ ability to carry on without him, he gives his toys away. The separation that had been feared for so long comes about with an overwhelming joy and hopefulness … and a little bit of sorrow.

Looking back, it seems the “Toy Story” movies track the evolution of our cultural tendency to invest emotional value in our possessions. The first installment introduced the idea. The second one introduced the idea of collectability, and the third works as a brilliantly well-timed recognition that we need to say goodbye to our stuff and move on.


For further consideration: Look for the documentary “Addicted to Plastic.” It recounts the history of plastic, from its introduction and development prior to World War II, its role in post-war prosperity to its current, destructive ubiquity. Far from being all gloom and doom, it ends with the suggestion that recently developed bio-plastics, which are recyclable, compostable, even edible(!), could replace almost all oil-based plastics … if the market were to demand it.