March 13, 2014

It is my mess

I still remember the moment I found out about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It was 2009, and I was in San Francisco, talking to a man who had made it his personal and professional mission to help people and companies comprehend the environmental devastation caused by our careless consumption and disposal of plastic.

I wondered if he was for real. I Googled it, and sure enough, this was a thing. I comforted myself in the way that I often do when I hear about bad things happening in far away places: "It's serious, but smart people are on the case. It's not my mess. I'll take a deep breath, remind myself to recycle, and return to my regularly scheduled programming."

A few months ago, I met a coworker, another man who was equally passionate about the same topic. He showed me photos of what happens when ocean animals and birds eat plastic. I was shaken, disturbed, and I had to console myself: "Minnesota's garbage doesn't end up in the ocean. It's sad, but it's not my mess."

Except it is. Plastic doesn't biodegrade like natural substances; it photodegrades into smaller pieces that retain their chemical structure as they become part of our soil and water. Every bottle of water or soda I have drunk from still exists, in some form, on this earth.

This is the part where I become despondent and want to charter a space cruise a la Wall-E.

My coworkers and I put together a challenge: for 2 days, we would monitor every single piece of single use, disposable plastic that crossed our path. I took pictures with my phone.

All this, just before lunch.

At lunchtime, I went to buy a salad from my favorite place, knowing that it was going to be served to me in a plastic clamshell container.

While at the restaurant, I noticed refillable cups for sale. They were larger and cheaper than the disposable variety. If I bought one, I would be able to keep it and send one fewer plastic lid and straw to the landfill today.

I also had my own silverware at my desk, so I politely declined the plastic fork and knife offered to me at the restaurant.

I've since used the refillable cup a dozen times at 3 different restaurants, and nobody told me I was weird or refused to fill it. In fact, I tend to get charged less than if I were to buy a fountain drink of the same size.

I am not going to single-handedly solve the problem of plastics in our ocean. It will take great scientific minds, sweeping reform in manufacturing, and a huge cultural shift.

But I can refill that cup. I can reuse that fork. I can drink water from the tap and bring my own bags to the store and recycle all the plastic that comes through my house.

This is my piece of the mess. I am going to reduce it.

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