The years before plastic
I grew up in the years before plastic, where there was no such thing as a Monobloc chair. During Christmas and birthday parties, we rented rattan chairs that were delivered by the truckload and assembled in a room or on a lawn along with folding tables made of plywood and steel.
The chairs would splinter and cut our fingers sometimes, or the woven seats would rip from the weight of an extra heavy guest. When they would break, they would be fixed, the way many things back then were repaired before disposal. Radios lasted decades and television repair shops were fairly common. The neighborhood shoe shine man reattached loose soles using rugby (contact cement), and he often fixed malfunctioning umbrellas, too.
Before the mass production of polymer compounds, the limited supply of plastic bottles and tubs were used and re-used. Star Margarine tubs were used to store cooked rice, leftover adobo, or even one's sewing kit if there wasn't an empty canister from butter cookies or Selecta Ice Cream. Magnolia Ice Cream gallon tubs in the freezer would be misleading, often containing ice instead of a milky frozen treat.
My lunch was packed in a reused Lady's Choice Mayonnaise jar because Tupperware was too expensive. I didn't complain because jars were more leak-proof for my baon of sinigang soup. My jug of water was a recycled gallon of Mr. Juicy orange juice that had to be kept upright or else it would leak. For years, I begged for a Coleman jug which I finally got in high school, but still it was made known to me that such things were costly and unnecessary, the folding spout and many moving parts much harder to clean.
"Everyone has them," I told my parents who rolled their eyes in the unmistakable way that said, "You're not everyone." My friends could not believe I had to beg for a water container (Don't worry, I appreciated my parents' discretion years later).
Reusing the 'disposable'
Party leftovers were packed in aluminum foil or tin trays as this was before the advent of styrofoam boxes. Party plates had a wax paper topper so the host could re-use the stiffer cardboard plate underneath. We washed the plastic forks and spoons for future use. We saved the unsoiled paper plates. We washed and hung plastic tablecloths for the next gathering.
A trip out of Manila would mean packed sandwiches in bags that were washed and dried after use. There were no colorful bags of sitsirya (packaged snacks) on our trips or even cans of soda or bricks of juice. Not only were they expensive, but they were uncommon. If an overseas relative happened to send us a canister of Pringles, we would fight for it for ten minutes and the empty container would then house our collection broken crayons.
As a result of this scarcity, litter on beaches would be composed only of the occasional cigarette butt, sometimes a glass soda bottle. The presence of garbage was offensive and so rare that we had time to discuss its sources' irresponsibility.
Made by hand
Wood and steel were main materials in household items. Shoe racks, hangers, closets, desks, and tables were made of wood. There was no such thing as going to a department store to buy a plastic table that collapsed into its parts inside a flat box. Carpenters custom-built furniture if they were not imported. There weren't any plastic cabinets and storage bins or even rice dispensers. Our takal (measuring cup) for rice was an old empty can of evaporated milk, dulled and marked with the shape of rice grains from years of use.
Yoyos were handmade and tops were made of wood and a thick iron nail. We flipped them with cotton string attached to a flattened tansan (bottle cap). The simplest toys – a marionette bird made of yarn or a rotating egg that caused chickens in a circle to peck as it passed – were hand-carved and sold by a man on a straw wagon being pulled by a hardworking cow.
Baby walkers were shaped out of rattan and didn't have wheels but just a smooth ring intended to slide on bamboo slatted floors. The sandok (rice scooper) was made of wood whose edges became smooth from everyday use.
A trip to the market would result in food items in paper bags fashioned out of glued phone directory or magazine pages because plastic bags were still costly and not as durable. Soda bottles were returned for deposit as plastic ones still did not exist. Magnolia glass milk bottles were so thick and special that we used them to chill water in the fridge when they were empty.
There were no large fast food chains except for the newly opened McDonalds which wrapped its burgers in paper and whose fancy cutlery we washed and reused at home. Kentucky Fried Chicken on Roxas Boulevard served chicken in stainless steel plates. These restaurants were considered pricey and were very special treats. It was unusual to find food containers littering city streets.
Technology, globalization, and prosperity happened. We had access to every imaginable plastic product or container possible. Reusing things became inconvenient and impractical when one could just toss a plastic item after a single use.
There was a time when trash was rare instead of omnipresent because plastic was not a common thing. Most of our household trash was burned in a steel drum placed under fruit trees to smoke the bugs out of them.
It's difficult and impossible to argue with progress, but its cost also glares at us every day. Landfills, garbage barges, climate change, and the presence of litter as fixtures of the sea are really just things we have to accept these days as the price of modern living.
And what to make of the speed by which things break and are replaced? There is a certain convenience in buying an inexpensive plastic chair whenever a year-old one breaks, but there must also be a mentality that accompanies it.
Not building chairs from scratch or taking care to smoothen and polish its edges, make it sturdy, beautiful and lasting removes a chunk of its value as well. Unable to pass it on after years of use, or value it enough to send it to a woodworker for a polish and repair, our basic household objects become transient, instant, disposable and isolating.
Without a person making and maintaining them and our inability to speak of their value to pass them on, we become surrounded by temporary things and single-serve items. We frown upon sentimentality and say, "It's just a chair," something we would never say about a beautiful piece that's been handed down along with its story as a grandmother’s favorite chair, or a fixture in a home’s reading corner. This loss of history and absence of tangible proof may be a reality that we have to accept, but I’m sure this mindset of impermanence also translates to other aspects of our lives.
What are your memories of those days before plastic? What objects do you wish weren't so disposable? – Rappler.com