November 28 2007

Sea of Consequences: The Takeoff

by Surfrider Foundation

The moment two years ago that I saw the picture of a plastics-impacted belly of a dead albatross chick an internal switch flipped. I recall sitting in the audience with my jaw half dropped, unmoving, grief slowly seeping from my core outwards, until my eyes brimmed. I wept for the sad way the bird must have died, slowly wilting from starvation, maybe with it’s parent watching in confusion and distress. I wept with quiet rage at our collective human carelessness and ignorance- millions of pieces of garbage with a half-life of five centuries float out to sea, to the home of millions of marine organisms for whom our “throwaway” stuff is not “away.” I wept from the stark reminder of the overwhelming cultural and societal hurdles – how the hell do we walk away from the mind-numbing convenience of single-use disposable plastic packaging and disposable food and beverage containers to the fundamental sensibility of actually valuing and using and reusing natural materials again?

We have the phenomenon here of shifting baselines- the baseline for the last and current generation is that plastic is, well, normal. It’s not- a combination of petroleum byproducts and synthetic chemicals now house most of our food and drink. That’s an aberration of normal, or what should be normal and has been for thousands of years until now.

I was discussing this with an unconvinced neighbor recently, she was profoundly stumped, “Well then what am I supposed to get my potato salad in when I go to Safeway?” I gave her three answers: 1. Make your own potato salad (she wasn’t amused); 2. Bring your own container (she rolled her eyes and mumbled “yeah, right”); 3. Tell Safeway to use bio-plastics or Spudware and help get eco-friendly products into the mainstream. She asked, “But are they as good as regular plastic?” Then I was stumped. I politely but somewhat exasperatedly came back with, “How strong of a container do you need to transport potato salad 8 minutes from the store to your house?” We were quiet for a moment, her eyes narrowed, and she narrowly yielded “I guess I’d never thought about it that way before… but still…” With the courteousness that neighbors do well to maintain, we gently moved on to the weather, then ambled apart towards our own homes. “But still…” lingered in my head, “but still what?” I thought. Would she be any more convinced if she saw the end result of our fixation with plastics? If she saw the pictures of the dead critters, read the oil consumption numbers, heard descriptions of the noxious chemicals seeping out of the plastics and into our food? When the time is right, I will invite her to a presentation, and I will describe her reaction here.
This is my first blog of about a dozen or so I’ll be posting over the next year. I will be writing about a project that I’ve recently embarked upon, one that is a direct result of attending the Marine Debris- Rivers to Sea conference in Redondo Beach, CA in 2005, where I saw that impactful albatross carcass photograph, and my switch flipped. I could not go on status quo, it seemed imperative that more people had to know, have to know. And so, co-supported by the Surfrider Foundation and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, I’ve put together a slide presentation about marine debris and I’m taking it on the road.

Project: In one year give at least 75 PowerPoint slide presentations about plastics in the oceans, discussing various issues as related to marine debris, including: the effects on sea life through ingestion and entanglement; health implications of toxic chemicals both absorbing into and leaching from plastics; petroleum based vs bio-plastics (e.g. corn, sugarcane, potato based); political and legislative hurdles; and finally- solutions and activism.
Audience: Classrooms in middle schools, high schools, colleges; community organizations; city councils; interested businesses; any group who’ll have me.
Location: Central California corridor-- a swath of communities from the coast of Monterey, into Salinas Valley, up through the ‘burbs of Sacramento and into the mountain towns around the High Sierra & Truckee. I’m going inland because 1) everything flows downstream, 2) visitors to the coast need to understand the end result of beach trash, 3) at some point all affect or will be affected by this burgeoning issue.
Goal: Educate. Advocate. Activate.

I welcome all feedback, questions, conundrums, suggestions, musings, etc.
More to come, including links. Thanks for reading, ride on, keep in touch and... BYO!