Is Plastic Unavoidable?

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 plasticTern 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.