Leeks in the Lab

As I type up my field notes, I am constantly reminded of the challenges of conducting scientific research on a sailboat designed for racing. Take the following conversation, in which I attempt to procure ingredients for a giant pot of lentil soup:

“Hey Hank, are there any more leeks?”

“I think there’s still some in the cooler.”

“Which one is that?”

“Here.” [Hands me three slightly yellowed leeks]

Seems like a pretty unremarkable exchange. Except that Hank was our resident marine biologist postodc, hard at work processing samples in the ‘lab.’ Imagine, for comparison, a university cafeteria cook walking into the biology lab asking for onions. So why I am troubling Hank with my legume improvement project? The ‘lab,’ you see, was a requisitioned bunk with barely enough room for a single person to stand on the cabin floor. And this tiny space was also home to the cooler, bread machine, and freezer (where Hank rested his laptop when using the microscope). Where other research vessels reportedly have lab spaces bigger than our entire boat, on the Sea Dragon leeks become benchmates with drying samples and digital microscopes. Questions about the location of vegetables are only part of what I can only assume were some pretty strange circumstances for laboratory research, even on a boat. Not long into the expedition, Hank realized that using his digital microscope alongside the hardworking bread maker would trip the breaker on the limited electrical system. Bread versus science quickly became a very practical decision: make fresh food for lunch or let Hank use his microscope?

As much of the lab space as my normal camera lens could capture. The freezer is behind the bucket next to the fan:

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The Last Straw

Plastic is so entangled with everything we do, that is seems pretty much impossible to stop using it cold turkey. My computer is plastic, my contacts, even my toilet seat. The last time I purchased eyeglasses I was told that getting my prescription filled with actual glass lenses would leave me with spectacles so heavy as to prohibit their staying on my face in any useful fashion. I am, however, still trying to reduce my plastic use as much as possible. I think one of the best strategies for doing this on an individual level (but never at the expense of systemic change!), is consciously cutting out items, one by one. My clarinet teacher used to say that it took 28 days to break a bad habit: it takes many conscious repetitions to turn carrying a reusable bottle or bringing your own bags to the grocery store from an exception into a new routine.

The next question, of course, is what items? Speaking with beach-clean up and plastic waste educators, the items most often cited are single-use disposables, especially those commonly found on their respective local beaches and easily substituted or done without. Plastic bags and bottles (don’t forget the caps!) seem particularly charismatic examples, and ones that most people would probably be quick to name. But to my surprise, plastic straws also top many worst offender lists. While small in comparison to whole cups or bottles, they are items far less likely to be reused or disposed of carefully. And they float.

Unlike my glasses, I generally use plastic straws for only a few short minutes. In fact, despite my admirable bag and bottle habits, I am so used to straws, that I was actually annoyed by their absence on single-serving tetra packs of coconut water. I associate drink-box packages so closely with bendy straws that the ‘problem’ of consuming the contents without caused me to pause. I actually had to think for a minute to figure out that I could very, very easily lift the little foil tab and drink right from the container. But after picking up a generous handful of straws (many in Starbucks green) off the beach near my parents’ house, I’ve finally been motivated to work on cutting them out of my routines – one by one.

How to be plastic straw-free:

1. Do without – request “no straw” with your next iced coffee/soda/G&T

2. Can’t imagine your iced tea tasting the same sipped straight from the cup? Carry your own reusable straw.  Stay classy with stainless steel

3. Can’t imagine how we ever lived without plastic straws? Encourage your local beverage establishment to switch back to paper

PS If anyone finds a reusable boba (bubble tea) straw let me know!