Ties that don’t bind

If you’ve spent any time mucking along the sides of roadways, the verge of ditches, the margins of parking lots, sidewalks, trails or people’s yards, you know what these areas reveal about the habits of the humans who frequent them. 

You also know it isn’t pretty.

To start, take the truly impressive efforts people make to hide garbage they know should be placed in trash or recycling bins — fast-food collateral, drink containers and that badge of true laziness, the dog-poop bag. Yes, the irony of someone burrowing deep into the underground to stash what would take equal or less effort to dispose of properly is a thick as the branches moved aside to do so, but the general unconsciousness of humanity is a topic for another day. Instead — because it’s both startling and intriguing — let’s discuss the most common item encountered in the above environs.

Although heartening to note this isn’t the expected gum wads or cigarette butts, it still feels strange to report that the object most commonly lost, misplaced, dropped, discarded, spontaneously generated, pooped out by birds or seemingly rained down upon the Earth from the cosmos is … the lowly hair tie.

Indeed, these ubiquitous circular elastics are everywhere, accumulating in the corners of our lives, ground under heel into gravel or asphalt, infiltrating the pedosphere wherever one cares to look — and, most importantly, places one doesn’t care to look. It’s as if two invisible armies had a hair-tie war all around us; the war is over, but the spent ammo remains.

While the full forensics of such profligacy remain muddy, a few clues suggest how hair ties escape control: they’re small, imminently disposable, come in mostly natural colours and constantly break — despite being comprised of synthetics that will never disappear. A partial list of those molecular constituents many of which are plastics, includes tetraflouroethylene, perflourobutyric acid, flouronitrosomethane, hexaflouropropylene-vinylidene fluoride (my unpronounceable favourite) and various chlorinated combinations of polyethylene, polybutylene, polybutadiene, ether, ethylene, propylene, diene, neoprene, isoprene, etc. All you really need to know about this scary mouthful is that it isn’t going anywhere in the next few centuries, making hair ties a de facto measurable pollutant. 

Though neither size, low-quality, camouflage, nor disposability can account for their sheer number, there is this: watch someone wearing a hair tie and note the regularity with which it is put on and taken off , on and off, on… and off — as if possessing one requires flaunting the odds the universe has set for losing it. 

My own home is no exception. When my partner enters our dwelling, the first thing she does — before misplacing keys, phone or sunglasses — is deposit a hair tie on the kitchen counter. I find one every day, placing it in one of several baskets set around the house for their collection. These baskets, however, are forever empty, their contents having evaporated into the ether. When I find hair ties in the car, I likewise place them on the stick-shift, where I assume they’ll doubtless come in handy. These also evaporate. Perhaps the miraculous ability of hair ties to diffuse into the atmosphere explains why they also appear to precipitate from it. 

And yet… despite their ubiquity on land, in water, even air, hair ties must constantly be purchased, an inexplicability explored by in a noteworthy article: “Quantum scientists discover that the more hair elastics you buy, the fewer you have access to.” 

I recently noted that “choking hazard” was printed on a pack of hair ties. On any other product, this would be cause for concern over its disposition, yet hair ties magically elude such scrutiny. Perhaps because keeping them in an obvious place — like your wrist — is also dangerous. “A hair tie may cause a cut or an abrasion after chronically rubbing on your wrist,” says a health blog (for real). “If the cut is deep enough, it can allow… potentially dangerous pathogens such as MRSA or E. coli, to penetrate to deeper layers where they do not belong.”

Well, pshaw to that. Especially given that an extensive literature on the subject (again, not joking) universally urges a brilliant first line of defense against the scourge of hair ties: don’t lose them to begin with. Since we now know that this isn’t possible, perhaps we just need better-behaving, more sustainable hair ties. And guess what? Despite all my tongue-in-cheekery, you’ll be heartened to know that zero-waste, fair-trade, plastic free and other hair-tie alternatives actually exist

Who knew?