My Day, In Plastic

I’ve always been an environmentally minded person. When my father cut down the acre of forest in our backyard, I felt so bad for the trees that I vowed not to speak with him again (I caved sometime after dinner, several hours close enough to eternity for a 10 year old). I stopped eating meat years ago, have always been suspicious of where recycling really goes, and have an uneasy relationship with shopping for anything, especially if it comes in a package.

Since starting my plastic project, I’ve been systematically cutting down on the plastic in my life. I’ve substituted metal and glass for plastic containers, cotton and wool for polyester and nylon, cellulose for synthetic sponges. At any give time, I likely have a reusable bag, bottle and pair of chopsticks within reach. So when I asked my students to write down all the plastic objects they touched in 24 hours, I decided to check in on my own plastic habits and do the assignment along with them. The results? My life, as the 67 item-long list documents, is far from plastic free.

Some of the items represent things I can’t easily control: the synthetic carpet in grad housing; a strong glasses prescription. But many more are things I am not willing to go without, plastic objects part of important daily practices I feel I could not otherwise perform. Most concerning are the 17 things that could be considered single-use, containers not meant to be refilled, razor blades that cannot be sharpened, food packages that will long outlive their contents. I do not often possess the skills that alternatives would require (I am mortally terrified of wielding a straight razor), competency lost as disposables and ready-mades proliferated long before I was born. In other cases it’s a matter of time. While I enjoy making and baking all kinds of things from scratch, I would have to seriously re-arrange my life in order to supply myself with homemade staples like laundry-soap and almond milk on a regular basis.

Trained to think about systems, not individuals, I try not to beat myself up or judge others too harshly for plastic habits. After all, plastic is part of the ways we have learned to be capable participants in everyday life. I do not like alienating people or myself (always in danger of being labeled an eco-freak). But understanding these complicated commitments is only part of the process. There is a fine line between not blaming and not doing anything at all. Every time I tell a group of students about my research, someone sheepishly hides a single-use plastic bottle under the table. But we don’t need to feel bad about plastic, we need to put the bottle back on the table, think about how it is connected to the politics of a shared way of life and capitalist mode of production, and look for the cracks through which it can be changed.

As I grade my students’ reflections on their plastic days, can’t help but notice that I am still surrounded, sitting in a plastic chair at a plastic table, with a plastic cup and straw (oh boba, how I can’t leave you), beside my plastic sunglasses, grading with a purple plastic pen. It seems I have done more to change my ability to see plastic (in pretty much everything) than to give it up.  I don’t have an easy solution for my plastic life, but there’s one thing I do know: an individual giving up the bags, bottles and cutlery symbolic of plastic habits might be a place to start, but it is far different from systemic change.

How much plastic is in your life?

24 hours, in order:

Glasses! Contact case Contacts Hairbrush Milk carton/cap Kitchen floor Toothbrush Soap Toothpaste tube Scissors Stapler Tupperware Dishsoap bottle Shower curtain Bodywash Shampoo bottle Razor Shirt? (no tag) Flip flops Credit card Screen door Detergent bottle Washer door Floss (nylon and possibleyTeflon – eeew!) Pepper grinder Bottle top Bike key/seat/pedals Bathing suit Shorts Goggles Student card Kickboard Deck chair Ice cube tray Folder Messenger bag Chair Sunglasses Tack This pen! Fan Computer cord Veggie peeler Colander Knife handle Phone Carpet Fridge door handle Micro-suede couch Knitting needles Chip bag Salsa container PB jar Garlic bag Compost bin Remote Chocolate package Toilet seat Keyboard/cover ipad case USB stick Saline bottle Nintendo 3DS Powder bottle Blinds Lamp Light switch

Advertisements

Plastic Culture & Consumption

It’s summer teaching time! A selection of books inspiring my senior seminar (COGN 150) on the role of plastic and plastic things in everyday life. I’m super excited about the class and can’t wait to see my students’ final projects.

The details: Plastic Culture & Consumption Syllabus

Kamilo beach lost & found

Google sleuths and polyglots! I need your help solving a collection of (s)pacific mysteries. Instincts honed in the 80s served me well in identifying the green lump of plastic above as a battlecat saddle from He-Man (Panthor’s actually based on the colour), but do you have any ideas about the rest of these objects found washed up on Kamilo beach in Hawaii?

Much of the plastic circulating the Pacific remains anonymous, even after it gets caught in nets or picked up off beaches. Broken into pieces, labels and contents long gone, there are few if any clues to help trace waste to its possible place of production, consumption or disposal.  Identifying objects and bits of writing is not only incredibly satisfying (especially compared to counting bits of confetti), this information helps researchers track where waste comes from and how it circulates in the ocean.

Some kind of game pieces? Glassware but what does it say?

These are Japanese survey stakes, but from where/when?

Found in a beachcombers closet, not on the beach:

The owner loves the shirt but would like to make sure it’s not advertising something offensive before she wears it.

Finally, Noni’s toy collection, in case you’re still in mystery/nostalgia mode.

Comments appreciated!

Fake Grass on a Plastic Beach

My recent research trip to the Big Island, Hawaii included a pilgrimage to Kamilo beach, near South Point. Kamilo is not a tourist beach; it is far from towns and houses, five miles down a very rough 4-wheel drive road. And it is covered in plastic waste. Like many people involved with plastic pollution, I have wanted to visit this beach for a very long time. I finally got the chance thanks to the incredible generosity of Noni and Ron Sanford, a local couple that have been beachcombing and cleaning up debris here for years.

Given the difficult trek, we left well before dawn, making our way through tall grass and groves of trees on increasingly rough roads. As the sky lightened the dirt track gave way to an otherworldly crossing of jagged black lava. Finally arriving at the beach with the dawn, this is what we saw:

This is not a local littler problem. A few containers read “Hawaii dairy,” but the vast majority of writing is Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and occasionally Russian. But don’t exonerate yourselves too quickly my North American friends – currents speed waste from the west coast of North America right past these islands to wash up on shores in Asia, or to circulate back around years later, likely as the tiny pieces scattered everywhere on the beach, recognizable only as plastic:

I’ve held large bags of Kamilo ‘sand’ before, but nothing compared to digging for hours through piles of plastic, synthetic confetti over a foot deep where it gets caught in the rocks. Among these motley fragments are pre-production plastic pellets called nurdles (the super round white balls), which are industrial rather than consumer waste.

The beach is an unforgettable lesson in what things are made of plastic, and what kinds of plastics float. I learn by looking  that rolls of tape, bicycle pedals and umbrella handles qualify in both categories. And so too, I learn, does Astroturf. With disturbingly poetic irony, I pick fake grass off a plastic beach. We also saw lots of bottle caps, bottles with caps  (the most common kinds of plastic bottles sink when not full of air), and a surprising number of toothbrushes, most extremely weathered, bristles worn down to almost nothing. From amongst these broken pieces, Noni and I pulled a collection of strange treasures, including wheels and lighters Noni is collecting for art projects. I am particularly intrigued by seemingly less-interesting knotted pieces of plastic bag. I learned a few months back that Hawaii promoted a ‘knot your bag’ campaign in an effort to ground flighty plastic film, and wonder whether it did more than make people feel better about using disposable plastic.

Further down the beach, turtles swim in surge channels garnished with waste, bright plastic pieces floating visible in the frothy waters, a reminder of the animal lives at stake. Even more sobering, is a wood pallet that Noni suggests might be Japanese tsunami debris, but we have no way to confirm. Like much of the waste here, it too ultimately remains anonymous. It is especially worth noting, though, that this is the best the beach has looked in years. Fishing nets, ropes, floats and bottles are no longer piled waist high, thanks to the diligent clean-up efforts of Ron and Noni, and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. But cleanups at collector beaches do not stop flows of plastic into the ocean, they do not remove pieces already inside fish and birds, and they do not end the need for more cleanups.

Sea Dragon Reunion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent a happy past weekend helping out with Algalita special events at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. In addition to extra big display tables and a lecture and book signing by Charlie, the Sea Dragon and crew were docked for tours.

After seven months apart, I weave through buildings with the tall mast as my guide, approaching the boat with excitement and slight trepidation. Would the Sea Dragon look the same? Would the crew remember me from the July expedition? Would stepping aboard bring back the nausea?

And there she is, all white-clean and shiny from a winter of refurbishments. A brand new mainsail replaces the one splitting at the seams last summer, the shiny paint on the now-white hull not yet chipped by sampling equipment hand-hauled on and off deck in open seas.

I descend into the cabin (facing forward, swinging from the deck rather than safely backwards as directed of course), and it feels like the same friendly boat with new clothes. There’s some fancy wood shelving, brand-new seat cushions, and everything moveable stowed clean out of sight. I admire the new electrical system, especially the individual sockets for charging laptops in each bunk space. But the second I see ‘my’ bunk there’s a tiny flashback to the first rough days of the expedition, a mini wave of nausea. Or maybe it was just skipper Dale sneaking up behind me to rock my shoulders while chanting “woooeeeeweeeeooo.”

This was a test. The visit held the answer to a question I keep asking myself: would I do it again despite the first rough days, the close quarters with people that start as strangers, weeks without land in sight?

YES! Absolutely. If only I had funding.

If you’d like to join the Algalita-Sea Dragon families on the science adventure of a lifetime, a few guest crew spaces remain for both the Western Pacific Garbage Patch and Tsunami Debris Field expeditions coming up this May.

A Spoonful of Absurdity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last weekend I was fortunate to accompany an Algalita member giving a talk for a local women’s group. It was a great presentation, covering all kinds of marine plastic problems and Algalita’s efforts to research and to educate. The audience was clearly captivated, even with the trash talk encroaching on lunchtime.I really enjoy watching people give these kind of presentations on marine debris and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In part, because I can almost always count on an audience member to make some kind of comment that is amazing-to-me, yet so telling of general sentiment.

I was not disappointed. Illustrating what Algalita and others have been calling the 4th ‘R’ – refuse – the presenter pointed out that restaurant beverages, even humble glasses of water almost always come with straws that aren’t necessary for conveying liquids to mouths from containers designed exactly for that purpose. Seems reasonable, but an audience member was quick to interject, “but the glasses are dirty,” soliciting nods of approval from the crowd.

Thinking about how to handle such comments, I remembered Max Tempkin’s poster (posted above but unfortunately sold out), that circulated the interwebs in the recent past. I think it’s a great example of the technological fix in all its absurdity. It helps shake the strange logic out of what have become ‘reasonable’ common practices, like declaring plastic straws necessities instead of washing dishes or asking yourself why you frequent restaurants that you do not find clean.

Occupy Trash Island?

Making slides for a recent conference presentation, I googled across this image:

Intrigued, I click though to its source, an article titled “Paradise Recycled: Architects Dream of Turning Great Pacific Garbage Patch Into Habitable Island,” which outlines plans for a floating metropolis to be made from plastic waste gathered from the sea. I gaze in wonder at images of occupants lounging canal-side outside plastic high-rise homes, no longer convinced that stories of people ready to invest in garbage patch real estate are only jokes.

While the article implies that ‘trash island’ is not already existing as such, explaining that ‘new land’ needs to be made not simply found, the project is clearly inspired by accounts of a large, dense mass of plastic at sea (“as big as France and Spain combined”). Such grand plans, however, do not emerge exclusively from the image of garbage patch as island. A few weeks ago, after an Algalita presentation on ‘toxic soup’, I listened politely as one audience member continued to insist on the possibility of filtering plastic fragments from entire oceans without harming marine life. He refused to be swayed by reminders of the elusiveness of plastic bits or the vastness of global seas. We do not, it seems, suffer from a lack of imagination or conviction when it comes to grand technological fixes that ensure consumption as usual.