Lenten Plastic Fast March 1, 2024

The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away during this holy season the negligence of other times. The Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 49.

As a Benedictine oblate, I look to the wisdom in the Rule of Saint Benedict to inform my faith life outside of a monastic vocation. Benedict’s rule has endured for over 1,500 years in part because of his astute understanding and practicality in regards to human nature and his deep understanding of scriptures on which his rule is thoroughly founded. This is apparent in his chapter on “The Observance of Lent”. In it, Benedict doesn’t lower the bar as a concession to human nature – well at least do the right thing during Lent if unable for the rest of the year. Nor does Benedict see Lenten observance as a penitential act for sinful behavior. Rather, he ends the chapter’s first paragraph writing “let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep [etc.] and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” Happy those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked…rather, the law of the Lord is their joy  (Psalms 1:1a,2a). For Lent, Benedict invites us to taste and hunger for the joy that comes from aligning our lives according to God’s laws. Our Lenten practices, then, are modifications in our behavior to achieve this goal. One such modification, I see, is Benedict’s call to deny ourselves some food, drink, sleep and so forth – a call against excessiveness or, in modern terms, consumerism. Give us this day our daily bread – not more nor less than each person needs. 

My original plan in proposing a plastic fast for Lent was to present some current facts about the threats plastic in the environment poses and offer some practical ways we could help reduce it. I quickly became overwhelmed. It wasn’t the mounting data on the dangers of plastic that overwhelmed me; it was the growing lack of agency and hope in being able to do anything substantive, individually or collectively, about the problem. It began to feel like all the elements of a Greek tragedy in which we finally realize what we did wrong but have already put in motion the destructive consequences from which we can’t escape.

Before investigating the situation, I took pride in using a reusable cloth bag while shopping, but I became aware that most of what I bought, with few alternatives, was in plastic containers that would soon get tossed. I felt good however in regularly discarding plastics in recyclable bins. But my research informed me that very little “recyclable” plastic is even recycled, much of it isn’t even recyclable despite claims to the contrary, and there are many incidents of recycled plastic being shipped to developing countries where marginalized people suffer most directly from our plastic consumption. Talk about environmental injustice! I also discovered that the plastic manufacturers were often the biggest supporters of recycling campaigns. Why? It appears they are eager to shift responsibility onto the consumer to properly dispose of plastics because they have no intention of curbing their production of it. And quite frankly, I didn’t even entertain the thought that politicians in office would take meaningful actions to hold the plastic producers accountable. In conclusion, I came to believe my original plan would be Pollyannaish at best. 

First, I will assume if you are reading this blog and have come this far, you either recognize the dangers of plastic in the environment or seek to learn more about it yourself. Second, I don’t suggest we abandon efforts to curb our plastic consumption and to properly recycle it in a just manner. Almost half of the plastics produced each year are single use plastic, and it is this type of plastic that overwhelmingly enters into the environment with destructive consequences. If collectively, we sought ways to eliminate just single use plastics, we would be well on our way to the lofty goal of cutting plastic consumption by half and send producers the message to stop inundating us with them rather than encouraging us to recycle our way out of the problems they create. Lent then is an excellent opportunity to take time to study the subject and to experiment with creative ways to reduce or eliminate our reliance on single use plastics and to share with each other what we learn. In this way, we would observe Lent in a Benedictine manner – anticipating the joy and spiritual longing of caring for Creation. 

I want to share my own reflections on why it is imperative for Christians to respond to plastic pollution. Giving up hope and waiting for a new heavens and a new earth without any plastic isn’t an off ramp we should take. My perspective comes from being a forest ecologist and a Benedictine oblate. I encourage you during Lent to apply your own perspectives and personal experiences to the problem. Fear mongering and shaming won’t help us take steps to reduce plastic consumption; coming to a personal conviction that the Creator calls us to care for Creation will.

How did We Get Here, from My Perspective

We arrived here by reversing the role of Creator and Creature. God did not create plastic; humans did. God created the fundamental components of plastic – carbon and hydrogen. We discovered a way to combine these elements in an entirely synthetic structure that never existed naturally and as such has no place in the design of Creation. It was hubris to say “let there be plastic” then proclaim it good without considering the consequences.

 Our first command from God was to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over all living things that move on the earth (Genesis 1:28). The idea is that in Creation are all the materials necessary to cultivate and sustain life. This is reiterated when we see that God settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to care for it (Genesis 2:15). There is no license here to exploit nature but rather to work with it and within the bounds of its natural processes. As a forester, my role is not to exploit the forest for timber and other products; rather, my task is to understand the dynamics of a forest in order to cultivate it sustainably to derive products and services we use and benefit from. Because the Garden of Eden was described as a tree garden, I like to think I am practicing our original vocation.

In my research as a forest ecologist, I specifically focus on understanding the role of dead tree decomposition in the forest carbon cycle. Dead trees do not just physically weather away; instead, an incredibly diverse population of wood-decaying fungi and associated organisms actively decompose the carbon compounds of wood and make available nutrients for new life. In one sense, dead trees are more alive than living trees. Here, we find a natural recycling program built into Creation. Decay and decomposition in general are vitally important in sustaining life. Imagine a world in which dead organisms didn’t decay. Jesus even uses decomposition as a metaphor to explain His death and resurrection. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit (John 12:24).    

The problem with plastics is there is essentially nothing in nature that actually decomposes it. It was invented barely over 100 years ago, so it never evolved to participate in nature’s life sustaining recycling program which is infinitely better and more efficient than any recycling program we invent. The only thing plastic really sustains is rampant consumerism and the throwaway culture that Pope Francis boldly calls out in Laudato Si’ as underlying causes of our ecological crisis. 

Commit to a Lenten Plastic Fast

I invite you then to join me in a Plastic Fast for Lent. First, contemplate and become more aware of just how prevalent plastic is in our society and in your own life. Second, look for creative ways you can eliminate single use plastics. Third, don’t get overwhelmed or jaded by the process – stay prayerful! Fourth, share with family and friends your Lenten experience. And finally, take some local action!  Fortunately, Minnesota is addressing plastic pollution in some meaningful ways through innovative plastic recycling (see Yes, we do want some of your plastic) and through proposed legislation that holds plastic manufacturers accountable through The Packaging Act, which you can choose to support by contacting your legislator.

Below I have listed a few articles and resources I have found useful on the subject, but we all have Google and there is a lot of useful information out there.

Plastic Pollution – UN Environmental Programme

The Plastic Free Foundation

The Problems with Plastics – Ecology Center

Tips to Use Less Plastic – Green Education Foundation


Gregory Harris

Every Friday in Lent, our Creation Justice Committee (CJC) will offer some suggestions as to how we might be gentler with our planet and help implement the vision Pope Francis set out in his encyclical Laudato Si’ on the care of creation and his more recent Apostolic Exhortation Laudate Dominum.