It is no secret that I am a rather negative person. Specifically, I have been characterized as an “over-aggressive, condescending, Debbie-Downer”.
When discussing environmental problems, I often hear this refrain:
Well at least s/he’s doing something about it!
That is, in my opinion, one of the most destructive notions that we as a society promote. Sometimes, doing “something” is way worse then doing nothing at all.
Case in point: This stupid thing. You’ve probably seen The Ocean Cleanup Project praised on the news as some genius invention from a teenager (who knows nothing about the ocean). Meanwhile, stuffy scientists have been criticizing it from the get go, offering way less sexy alternatives. Unsurprisingly, the test runs have not been successful, for some of the very reasons listed by its critics.
It’s important to pay close attention to the criticism being leveled against the project. No one is saying the project won’t do enough to remove plastic. Instead, they’re saying that there’s been inadequate research and preparation, especially regarding environmental impacts (which is bizarre, since the whole point of the Ocean Cleanup is to “save” the environment).
Take this little gem:
None of the species mentioned in the Zooplankton Diversity section (p. 320) actually inhabit the NPSG [North Pacific Subtropical Gyre].
Plankton make up the base of the food chain and are notoriously fragile. But the researchers couldn’t even be bothered to get the species rights?
That’s kind of a big deal. In fact, I would argue that the oversimplification of the massively complicated issue that is plastic waste, followed by the oversimplification of the massively complicated marine ecosystem, is precisely why the project has continued to fail.
It’s not like this information was unknown or unavailable at the time. The individuals who worked on the project just didn’t both to look any of this up. And the public rewarded that poor research with $10 million dollars in funds. $10 million that could’ve gone to actual conservation work, and is instead going to what could actually be very detrimental to the environment (Seriously, just read what smarter people then me have to say).
Then, there’s incidents like this, that often occur after man-made disasters:
According to conservationists, some well-meaning cleanup crews who unknowingly walk into nesting habitat may be doing more harm than the oil itself, experts say.
The above quote is from an article about the Deep Water Horizon Spill in 2010, but that’s not the first time that there’s been a conflict between clean-up crews and birds’ nests. I’m certainly not against oil spill clean up initiatives, but I also think that we as a society need to be more thoughtful about how we go about “helping” in any scenario.
There are several advantages to cash donations, he said. Cash can directly benefit survivors because it can meet specific needs, boost a local economy, and reach overseas locations more quickly. “Voluntary agencies need to crack the resistance people have to collecting cash. They feel it’s easier to collect the goods. But people could get just as enthusiastic about, say, a benefit event rather than getting involved in collecting and sorting.”
That’s a quote from 1999.
Take a look at this, from 2016:
“Money sometimes doesn’t feel personal enough for people. They don’t feel enough of their heart and soul is in that donation, that check that they would send.
“The reality is, it’s one of the most compassionate things that people can do.”
Aid workers have been saying for 17 years what they need- and don’t- from the public.
This very clear request has been ignored because it doesn’t feel good. You know what else doesn’t feel good? Cutting back on your personal plastic use. But that’s a much more cost effective and efficient way to curb ocean plastics.
It also feels pretty terrible to “do nothing” in the face of an oil spill, even if sometimes, it’s the best solution for long-term ecosystem recovery. But it doesn’t feel good to refuse to clean off oiled birds, even though “saving” them may be less humane. And you definitely vote for individuals who support environmental and safety regulations (something BP flouted).
When it comes to human beings, we especially want to be personal. That’s why we donate clothes, which we have plenty of because of our unsustainable shopping habits. I suspect that we would feel much less insistent that our clothes go to someone who “needs it” if we bought less, and actually wore our clothes out, rather then just out of fashion.
I’m not trying to say that fashion is evil, and we should never help out from an oil spill (I do think we should absolutely cut out most, if not all, plastic use). However, I think that we need to reevaluate the standards we set for our “good” acts, especially environmental ones. We need to be thoughtful, and yes, we should definitely listen to expert advice! Environmental scientists love the environment- That’s why we do what we do! If there was an easy solution to the environmental issues, we would have already implemented them.
When it comes to many issues, but especially environmental (and often social/environmental justice) the solutions cannot be simple, because the problems are not. But often the best solution is for each of us to make long term behavioral changes. That’s much harder to sustain then a weekend of volunteering or a donation. But that is what will bring about effective results.
So yes, sometimes it is better to do nothing. But usually, it’s best to do a bunch of little things, over the long-term.
We all talk a big game in the science world- Electric cars, carbon capture, super fund sites. But did you know there is a super fund site dedicated to cleaning up human plastic? Tern Island, an island it’s unlikely you’ve even heard of. That’s because it’s a remote atoll in the Pacific, generally populated by scientists who chose a profession that kept them on the beach.
However, Tern Island is right in the path of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, that place you might know as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Every night, the waves bring in mounds of trash, and will continue to do so for decades.
By 2017, it’s unlikely that people haven’t heard of this issue. However what I feel is left out of the discussion is that this isn’t a nefarious plot to dump all of California’s garbage into the ocean. The plastic that makes it’s way to the open ocean is the bag that blew away from you at the beach that one afternoon. Or it’s the straw from the drink you dropped in your gutter. Or it’s the balloon your neighbor lost, the microbeads in your face wash.
Maybe you live far from the sea, but remember, all drains lead to the ocean, plastic from deep inland can be swept down rivers to the ocean (Yes, that includes your storm drain).
But this isn’t a post about guilt. This is a post about action.
The issue of plastics is so ubiquitous that it seems impossible to tackle in a personal or policy level. Some plastic bag bans have passed, though the data isn’t in yet to show if they work, and they aren’t wide spread. What about insidious drinking straws? Dedicated individuals are fighting to get rid of them, but that takes time.
It’s generally accepted that these single use plastic items need to go. But how often, in our daily lives do we refuse them?
I once thought that giving up plastic would be impossible. I avoided plastic water bottles, but I frequently got coffee in a disposable, “paper” cup (That it turns out is plastic lined). I constantly forgot my lunch and used plastic silverware. My cabinet was full of thermoses and glass tupperware I rarely used and was too lazy to clean.
Gradually, I began to make minor changes. It was a shift in my mindset more then my behavior that really drove these changes. I stopped making excuses for myself. Was I really “too tired” to do the dishes? When I forgot my reusable bag in my car, was it really that much of a burden for me to walk back out and get it? Did I have the moral right to pollute, rather then give up 5 minutes of my time?
The guilt started to get to me.
I got in the habit of being cleaner and more organized when it came to meals. I started reading other stories of people who have succeeded in becoming plastic free, following their tips. I set small goals for myself and changed in stages, eliminating one plastic item at a time.
When I began graduate school, I invested in a bag that was large enough to hold all the water bottles, thermoses, and snack containers I started toting around.
But I still found myself at parties or events with plastic silverware and red solo cups. At restaurants they still give me a straw before I can ask them not to.
So I invested in some camping silverware to fit inside my purse. I bring my nerdy Renfair mug with me to parties, and when people ask why, it begins a conversation about the consequences of our plastic consumption.
For many people, straws can go. However, I have Sjogrens, an autoimmune disorder that makes my teeth very prone to cavities. I also live in the sweet tea loving American south. Glass straws have been a godsend for my sweet tooth.
Certainly, people notice when I pull a fork or a straw from my purse. It’s weird. It’s awkward. But it also demonstrates a behavior that many people feel is too time consuming or too difficult and makes it feel more accessible.
It definitely helps that I am notoriously lazy. Because, if someone like me, whose favorite activity is napping, can do quit using plastic, many others feel empowered to make even just a minor change.
The thing about single use plastic, is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere, and it drives you mad. You begin to point it out to others, and yes, it’s annoying, but they start to see it too. They start to get annoyed. They start to refuse the straw, or finally dust off their thermos and reusable bag.
These are the changes that will add up long term. We will not cut our plastic use through plastic bans (especially now). But if it becomes the social norm to refuse plastic use, to refuse to be wasteful, to refuse excuses, we can begin to bring around real change.
And it has to start with scientists like me, who point out this problem. we must be willing to draw uncomfortable attention to ourselves and to fight back against the temptation of convenience. We must demonstrate the solution, before we demand others change.