Have you heard about the recent “Trash Bag Challenge” taking hold in social media? People all over the globe have begun posting before-and-after pictures of their efforts to clean up littered beaches, trails, and open spaces while using the hashtag #trashbagchallenge. As this new challenge continues to gain steam, I find myself looking back on the moment I first discovered just how bad our ocean trash problem is... Enjoy my story, and read on to learn how you can reduce your “plastic footprint.”
It was 2006 and I was embarking on an island adventure with my new husband. Since it was our first early morning on the island of Kauai, we hadn't yet adjusted to the time difference, and awoke hours before dawn. I had my heart set on seeing the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean, and our early waking made that easy. So, we grabbed our backpack and water bottles and headed out.
Since we didn’t have a good vantage for sunrise from our resort, we decided to walk through the golf course to the beaches that faced East. We made our way by twilight until the only thing between a lava rock-strewn sandy beach and the tarmac of Lihue’s airport was a chain-linked fence, a dirt road, and a stand of shrubs. This was NOT a tourist spot. It would be a first for me in many ways — and I would experience something so beautiful and tragic that I would be forever changed.
This was my first time on Kauai. It was also the first time I would see the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean — my first “green flash” — and the sunrise itself was so awesome, so unbelievably beautiful, that I found myself in speechless awe.
But before that moment... before the sun had begun its rise, I witnessed something so devastating that I was brought to tears. I saw a beach littered with piles of trash. Flip flops (which I later found out were all lefties), plastic bottles, fishing nets, buoys, styrofoam, water coolers, plastic utensils, plates, shampoo bottles, nylon rope. All of it plastic and much of it in piles.
And amid all the trash, I could see what looked almost like bird tracks, but not quite. They were the first footprints of sea turtles that had navigated from their sandy nests and into their ocean home, crawling over, through, and under treacherous piles of plastic waste. It was overwhelming. The stark contrast between the natural beauty and manmade junk assaulted our senses. I stumbled over a rock, busting my right flip-flop, and started to cry.
In those early a.m. hours before the sun rose, we cleared a path for the sea turtles. I sorted through seeming countless flip-flops in search of a rightie that might fit me, only to find that they were all lefties. I found one that kind of fit, even if designed for the wrong foot, and kept working. The job was nowhere near complete and we had already drained our water bottles when the light began to shift.
As we watched the sunrise from our perch on driftwood, we vowed to use less plastic and to operate in a less disposable fashion. From that day forward I would work to raise awareness (and money) to support ocean conservation and to help fix the problem that is our global addiction to plastic.
Our Plastic Addiction
Let’s be honest. Our plastic addiction was created through our love for convenience, our desire for durability, and (of course) by the petro-chemical industry as a whole. Plastics litter our roadways, trails, beaches, and oceans — and not just single-use plastics that are so often touted as the worst of the worst. Think for a moment about all the plastics you use each and every day. Combs. Brushes. Tupperware. Shampoo bottles. Automotive parts. Phone cases. Kitchenware. Coffee cup lids. Plastic is everywhere.
It's Not 2006 Anymore...
Today, we all know that our reliance on plastic is a problem. What I saw back in 2006 is featured in videos, and pictures of litter-strewn spaces are posted on social media each day. There are plastic islands in our oceans. Stories of ocean mammals, sea turtles, birds, and fish consuming or getting tangled in plastic populate our social feeds. We know that many of them die as a direct result. So how do we break the cycle and reduce, or even eliminate, our reliance on these easy-to-use tools we’ve become so reliant on?
Reducing Your Plastic Footprint
It may seem a daunting task. However, even though plastic has become so ubiquitous in our daily lives, there are simple changes we can all make that will have a positive (or less negative) impact. Below, you’ll find a few examples of steps you can take to reduce your impact. And if you stretch just a little more, your impact can become even greater.
Step 1: Eliminate Single-Use Plastics
Let’s start with single-use plastics. The convenience offered by single-use plastic is hard to ignore - but so is the resultant waste. Since China is no longer importing our recyclable waste, more and more processing centers are either storing plastic recyclables in warehouses or it ends up in landfill.
- Ditch plastic water bottles. Refill your own bottle — or purchase your water on-the-go in aluminum cans or boxes. If you love soda water, you might consider getting yourself a soda stream, though the canned varieties continue to get better and better!
- Use a travel mug for your coffee or tea.
- Keep reusable shopping bags on hand. Some states, counties, and cities have already banned single-use plastic bags. It’s time to follow their lead. Consider waxed cloth to seal containers. It can replace plastic wrap and plastic snack bags. Etee even guarantees your satisfaction, and will refund your purchase price if you’re not happy with their product.
- Use waxed paper bags instead of plastic bags for snacks and sandwiches.
Step 2: Buy Eco-friendly First
While there are plenty of groceries and goods packaged in plastic, buying more eco-friendly options is best. When you do shop, bring your own reusable bags, or opt for paper. When you can, choose more inert packaging for durable goods including paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum or tin. Here are just a few suggestions when considering the things we consume and shop for each week.
- Breads: Bread products are often packaged in plastic bags that most facilities don’t recycle. While it’s more difficult to find bread without the outer wrapper, consider buying your bread from the bakery department of your favorite grocery store. The bread is baked fresh daily, tastes great, and doesn’t contain added preservatives so common in mass-market breads. You might even consider baking your own.
- Produce: Produce has become a problem area for plastic packaging, from tomatoes to berries to greens, they are now commonly packaged in clear clamshell packaging. Consider buying heads of lettuce, cabbage, romaine and spinach for your greens, and be sure to bring your own reusable bags to package your bulk produce.
- Personal Care + Cleaning Supplies: From refillable shampoo + conditioners at your local health food store to shampoo and conditioner soap bars, there are zero-waste options available without a traditional use-and-pitch bottle. Choose biodegradable formulas and, when possible, reusable packaging. Look for glass or aluminum/tin packaged options.
- Supplements: Many supplements are packaged in plastic bottles. And whether these bottles are made from post-consumer-recycled material or not, they have varying degrees of recyclability in our current state-of-affairs (since China is no longer importing our plastic recyclables). Consider instead choosing supplements packaged in glass. While glass is heavier than plastic, it is durable and it protects the sensitive ingredients inside. Glass doesn’t off-gas, is completely inert, and when or if it ends up in our oceans, it provides a habitat for octopuses and other ocean creatures. When it decomposes from exposure, we get beautiful ocean glass! Plus, you can even re-use glass bottles in craft projects.
- Clothing: While convenient and inexpensive, synthetic fabrics can contaminate our waterways with microplastics each time they are washed — and some even require dry-cleaning. Dry cleaning services often introduce more contaminants and chemicals to our environment, and the plastic bags they use to protect your garments aren’t recyclable either. Consider instead adding items to your wardrobe that are made of natural fibers like cotton, linen, bamboo, hemp and wool.
Step 3: Take Action (and spread the word!)
If the #trashbagchallenge has taught us anything it’s this. Each of us can play an important role in re-shaping our environment and activating community. Be it from storms, negligent behavior or active litterbugs, trash is here and it needs to be cleaned up. Here are some things you can do to be part of the solution.
- Clean Up Party: Pick a holiday where people frequent beaches, trails and other outdoor spaces, and organize a clean up party for the day after. Pick the day after major holidays, especially January 1st and January 5th. You’ll be surprised how many of your friends get excited about this. This could be part of a #trashbagchallenge or not. Key supplies: Trash Bags, Gloves and a “can-do” attitude.
- Donate Your Birthday: Choose an eco-friendly charity and donate your birthday to a fundraiser on facebook! Facebook covers the costs of the fundraiser so 100% of the donation goes to WORK for you!
- Here are a few Ocean/Waterway charities to consider:
- Organize a Fundraiser: Though a lot of work, fundraisers are a great way to connect with your local community. You can organize a formal event, like a dinner with speakers from local chapters of charities, or simply network in your community for fundraising opportunities that are less involved. Many local businesses are willing to donate 10% of sales (and sometimes even more) for one day a month to a charity they’re passionate about. Some companies will even match their employee’s donations. Ask around and brainstorm with a few passionate friends. You never know what great ideas you’ll stumble upon in the process.