Sand, Sea, Sky ...and plastic.
Here in Humboldt County, there are a wide range of deliciously diverse perspectives. Overall, the famously hippy-friendly community is pretty liberal leaning. Social justice activism is a common practice and eco-friendly thinking is the general norm. We probably have one of the highest concentrations of proudly self-proclaimed tree huggers per capita in the nation. In this kind of community, it's easy to forget just how urgent the need to actively pursue positive environmental change really is. Reminders hit hard.
I've been living with my family in Arcata, CA as an academic break for about three months. We are surrounded by redwood forests, sandy coastlines dotted with rocky cliffs, a never ending parade of flowering plants in bloom - and rain. So much rain this winter. Last weekend brought a long-awaited break in the clouds. I took a walk on the beach with my Mama. We always bring along a couple of used baggies: one to collect shells and one to help carry out any litter we see washed up. This time, those bags weren't enough.
We walked along two miles of sandy beach before turning around. We wound up with our arms full of well over 20lbs of trash. Perpetrators included a few dozen plastic bottle caps, two liquor bottles, an oil canister, five plastic bottles, three skin product containers, packaging foam, about 5lbs of solidified tar, 3lbs of heavy rope, two plastic gardening pots, six large pieces of sharp glass shards, a 5 gallon (mostly empty) bucket of hydraulic fluid and countless unidentifiable but eerily cheerily colorful plastic bits. My heart hurt more than my arms from carrying it all back to the car to properly dispose of it.
We weren't walking on a super popular stretch of sand, by the way. This was in the Samoa State Marine Conservation Area, a Marine Protected Area with pretty light use on a relatively low population coastline in a region where environmentally friendly thinking is the norm. Imagine the extent of physical pollution coming from more populated and industrial coastlines.
Sometimes I wonder, why bother? There are more plastic microbeads in the ocean than stars in the sky and the Pacific garbage patch is twice the size of Texas. What's the use carrying a few armfuls back out of the water on my occasional walks? If negative impacts are this obvious in an area where environmentally friendly thinking is a standard, how can we even hope to make a difference in less "green" communities?
A few armfuls carried by many people adds up. Especially if we stop adding to the problem simultaneously to increasing our effort to clean it up. Every marathon takes millions of steps in training before the many thousands of the race itself. That's not impossible, it just requires an intentional decision to get off your a** and do it.
Consider which of these materials could have come from your own home based on the products you use every day:
Plastic food wrappers and containers, beverage bottles, disposable utensils and recreational equipment, gardening supplies, mechanical chemicals and containers, tubs and squeeze bottles for skin and hair care, straws...the list goes on. I know I'm not innocent; I shudder when I think of the non-recyclable clutter in my own bathroom drawer alone.
Out of sight is NOT out of mind. Plastics have even reached oceanic depths of which we have only explored by specialized deep-sea remote operated vessels. There are marine species we haven't discovered yet who already know us just by our garbage. You might not see where your trash winds up, but someone or something else will. Let's hope it gets cleaned up before it can wreak too much havoc in our ecosystems. Better yet, don't create trash in the first place/
Think about whether you actually need a product before you buy it. Consider alternatives without packaging. Recycle. Buy recycled and upcycled goods instead of new ones. Donate clothing items instead of tossing them. Choose non-synthetic fabrics or something else biodegradable as your packaging material. Use washable rags instead of disposable sponges for your cleaning needs. Ditch paper sack lunches with sandwich baggies and plastic forks for lunchboxes with stainless steel containers and silverware. Pack snacks. Bring your own mug for your to-go coffee shop stops. Buy bulk. Drink tap water.
FOR THE LOVE OF EARTH REDUCE OUR PLASTICS
Plastics aren't the only evildoer in the world of pollutants, of course. Sewage runoff, oil spills, and chemical pollutants from industrial productions, agriculture, and our own cleaning and hygiene supplies are other major problems. Unfortunately, you cant pick those up as washed-ashore trash. Still, you can reduce your contribution to the problem by choosing your actions and consumer goods intentionally.
Many of us in the United States have the beautiful privilege to choose from a multitude of sources from which to buy or make our daily products. Usually that includes some choices a little bit better for our planet. By the way, you may be pleasantly surprised by how well it treats your wallet to individually make a few small environmentally conscious changes.
I'm open to dialogue if any of y'all have comments or questions, whether to challenge or to learn more. Discourse is vital in making a society - wide change in our impacts.
If you prefer reading to chatting, here are some sources I suggest for understanding why plastics are a problem - and also what to do about it so that you don't just wallow in human-hating despair or cynical "why bother" apathy. A few inspirational people are at the end to prove all sorts of folks can take individual actions to make big change.
Overwhelming but already outdated numbers on how much trash is in our oceans.
Plastic water bottles are basically evil incarnate. The wax-lined, plastic lidded to-go mugs handed out at coffee shops create a similar issue, and they aren't recyclable.
When microplastics fill the ocean, they can fill your seafood - and you.
Straws and sea turtles (warning, don't watch if you get queasy easily)
Isn't trash supposed to go into landfills? How much of our trash winds up in the oceans instead?
Tossing your closet for the newest seasonal trends adds tons of trash
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
SWEAR OFF BOTTLED WATER. If you really can't handle the thought of drinking from a tap, look into getting a filter attachment for your faucet. FYI, chances are your tap water is lower risk than the gunk that might wind up in your plastic water bottle.
BYOBottle - carry a reusable water bottle for all your beverages.
BYOMug - carry a reusable thermos or mug for your coffee / tea / hot beverage fills.
Ditch the detergents: making your own cleaning supplies
STOP - DON'T TOSS IT - you (or someone else) could probably use that. Go for some DIY upcycling!
Donating your old clothes makes a difference in reducing textile waste.
When you buy new-to-you clothes, buy from consignment, second hand and thrift stores or from companies like Patagonia which recycle plastics to make their synthetic materials.
Compost! Save yourself from using so many plastic trash bags just for biodegradeable waste. It's easier to do at home than you might expect.
Find your local environmental groups and ask about their ongoing (or dreamed-of) projects - chances are they need volunteers!
Organizations that might have a chapter near you:
Fight pollution with Surfrider Foundation
Find wildlife conservation efforts and nature centers sponsored by your local Audobon Society chapter
Help nonprofits like Oceana combat overfishing, oceanic pollution, and ocean degradation. Donations are good, actions are better.
Can't afford to give time or money? Check out these tips on being an individual ocean defender.
If you're a diver, join Project Aware's efforts to save our seas as underwater superheros with wetsuits instead of capes.
Buy local: find co-op's, community supported fisheries, farmer's markets and other collaboratively supported nearby sources for food items that require less packaging and shipping to get noms on your table.
Call your government representatives and tell them to take a stand for environmental policies that would reduce carbon emission, diminish plastics, prevent pollution, and just generally be responsible. It's not unheard of for global powers to make a stand. The UN is already in on the fight against plastic.
Every year, Earth Day (April 22) inspires marches, demonstrations, clean up projects, community tree planting events, teach-ins and other events - often spread over the course of a whole week around the day itself. Some are organized by the Earth Day Network, and others by local nonprofits and environmental centers. Finding an Earth Day event to participate in is a good way to connect to other people near you and empower each other to make a difference.
Feel like trying your hand at activism? The March for Science is scheduled for Earth Day and the People's Climate March will happen on April 29 - stand up for the planet and add your voice to the crowds in DC or at a march near you!
INSPIRATIONAL PEOPLE ALREADY FIGHTING THE PLASTIC PROBLEM:
At just 19 years old, Boyan Slat invented this ridiculously cool Ocean Cleanup Array that collects trash floating about in open water. His design is already being put to use to clean up oceanic garbage patches via the Ocean Cleanup Foundation.
Colleen Henn, one of my personal favorite humans, is bringing her Surfrider Long Island mentality and experience with her while traveling South America. She helped organize a community beach cleanup in Ecuador and wrote about it here.
Lucia Hadella, another personal favorite person, has turned environmental activist blogging into a part of her graduate work. Her blog and instagram document her compassionate calls to action in the western U.S. and beyond.
Lauren Singer started living a waste-free life over four years ago. In all that time, she has only produced enough trash to fill a mason jar. When I discovered her blog documenting her lifestyle shift, I was blown away by how effectively she managed to cut trash out of her life. She writes about the challenges and how she overcame them, offering tips to make starting with tiny changes in your own life easier. She even started her own company designed around Zero Waste products!
Pop star Pharrell Williams happens to be the creative director of Bionic Yarn, a company that upcycles ocean plastics into yarns and fabrics used by partner companies to make all sorts of stylish gear.
Emma Watson (one of my idols for so many reasons) added sustainable style to her list of do-gooding awesomeness when she started her #3owears campaign while looking amazing in a gown made of upcycled plastics, calling on people to look for sustainably sourced clothing items with the intention of rewearing them as much as possible in the name of plastic pollution prevention.