On a day off, we decided to have a nice family day snorkeling off Great Dog, an uninhabited island just North of Virgin Gorda in the British West Indies. This place has a world renowned reputation due it’s natural beauty, and certainly not without reason. After a few weeks of our regular performance schedule and a 2 week visit from some friends we were definitely in need of some family time – and the snorkelling was fantastic. The overall condition of the reef was pretty good and the time with the fam just priceless – that is, of course, until we decided to go to the beach.
I could see there was some “debris” on the beach from where we moored the boat, so were not expecting a pristine beach excursion by any means. I was not expecting to be so appalled that I would spend the next two hours with my family gathering up all the debris into one pile and creating this sign. We all felt it – the giant cosmic “Why!!?!?!!” that screams through your brain when there isn’t someone available to beat senseless in blame. The worst part? What we were looking at was just one small beach on one tiny island in one minuscule part of the world. Truth is that this shit is going on EVERYWHERE.
You’ve heard of it, I’m sure, everyone has. If you say you haven’t you’re lying or ignorant or both. There’s no excuse for not knowing anymore aside from purposefully putting the blinders on to avoid any sense of responsibility. And while we can easily place blame on others to say that we’ve no part in the problem is an equally appalling set of self imposed lies. That you’ve either never or absolutely no longer purchase, own, or use any products that could be associated with disposable plastics is a near impossibility even in the most remote parts of the world. Even the Maasai in Africa are handed bottles of drinking water by some ignoramus with the Red Cross or what-have-you at some juncture. There’s so much to go around we’ll figure out a way to give it away in a remote African desert, for cryin’ out loud!
It is a thing that bothers me to no end, our endless lack of responsibility with plastics as a species. We know how to stop it but lack the will to do so. Hell, there was a time before plastics – a mixture of old and new techniques of shipping and storing things would could get us moving in the right direction. But no, why reusable when you can go disposable? I hate to sound ungrateful, but even through our experience with Hurricane Sandy I found myself terribly focused on the waste. Already there was enough waste just from the damage done – drywall, furniture, carpeting, you name it. On top of that we were handing out thousands of disposable soup cups, coffee cups, lids and utensils every day. That was just our crew, and it went on for months. On top of what we were doing there were the Occupy folks, the Red Cross, Church groups, and many others. Every one with the best of intentions, the ramifications of which having been left up for discussion at a later date.
We’d accept another heartfelt delivery from churches, VFW’s, fire departments, even some of our friends from out of state, all who organized truckloads of donations, and sure enough there would be cases upon cases upon cases of bottled water. Gazillions of bottles, caps, and of course the stupid wrapper that tells you it’s water inside and how many friggin calories it has. I mean really? Are we that friggin thick in the head that we actually need to be told that? Or could we possibly try to go without that extra layer of plastic for a minute and just call it “Bottled water from some source. Safe and drinkable.” As I understood our situation with Sandy, the water supply in NYC was at no point in jeopardy. Still some of the cleanest of any city in America, with some minor accesibility issues during the power outage phase. Yet the bottles of water flowed with unceasing numbers, so many in fact that we actually had a difficult time giving them away. And here some of them are, right in the BVI on this beautiful beach. (If you’re wondering what my beef with bottled water is, look no further than the Ohio-Nestle public water battle)
Alright, your right. There’s no way for me to know that any one of these bottles here on this very beach came from NYC. There’s no way to know that it ain’t, either. And if you’re “cool,” maybe you’re thinking a little bigger than your backyard when it comes to plastics in the sea. Maybe you can picture a bottle cap landing in the ocean and making a trek in the currents South in the Labrador, then North to East in the Gulf Stream halfway to Europe, then in some gyre and heading South again for months, maybe years, then finally making it’s landing on this very beach. Whether true or not it is a possibility given what little we know about the larger scale currents of the sea, and I certainly think about my hand in it often.
This whole problem goes right to the core of our work as performers – aside from the medical field, what business is more wasteful with disposable plastics than the food/ beverage/ entertainment industry? From a beach bar to a stadium the attitude of “well, this is a one-time event, soooo….” is prevalent. Even artists who claim to be enviro-friendly/ conscious on their tours are full of crap. Yeah, ok – you made the caterer purchase compostable plastics for your crew backstage. Except they aren’t going to be composted at all, are they? NO. Your caterers were up at 5 am making your crew breakfast, and didn’t stop until WELL after the last roadie head out of the theatre. You really think they’re in the mood to gather up all that compostable crap you made them buy and find a proper place to take it? Both doubtful and unreasonable to request. To all major artists who are touring with their enviro-blinders on: figure that portion of your rider out yourself, or remain an ass. We provision our own vessel while touring, why the hell don’t you? Only then can you claim your enviro-consciousness, only when you are in control of the ENTIRE process, start to finish.
There is not much any of us can do but share this problem with each other, every day that we think of it. Is it just about the percentage of seabirds with plastic in their gut growing from 10% in the 60’s to an estimated 95% now? Is it about those horrible scenes of various sea life entangled in webs of varying forms of plastic doomed to die of drowning or asphyxiation? Is it about the ginormous islands of plastic waste found in the gyre currents of EVERY ONE OF THE WORLDS MAJOR OCEANS? No – It’s even bigger than just the trash – or dare I say, smaller.
Now we’ve discovered that all that stuff just breaks down and breaks down until it is nearly microscopic in size. And what happens to it then? Out of sight out of mind, right? If nothing can get trapped in it, and it’s that small, what harm could it do? If you aren’t yet aware, the majority of the Earth’s biomass is held up in the planktonic life of the world’s oceans. At certain points of the year, nearly 90% of the planet’s oxygen is produced by phytoplanktonic life. Microscopic plants, freely floating in the sea, and they’re much more efficient at doing photosynthesis than all the plants and trees on land in the world by a longshot. The zooplantkonic life bed – the beginning of the “animal side” of the food chain – depends largely on that phytoplankton for sustenance. And it is on the zooplankton that all the remaining life of the sea depends in one form or another. And there’s your basic ocean food chain lesson in a nutshell.
You’ve read this far, so you’re intelligent – let’s not bore you with unnecessary details. You know what happens if one portion of the food chain collapses – and the lower the portion of collapse, the larger scale the effects will be. As it just so happens, the damn zooplankton are EATING THE DAMN MICROSCOPIC PLASTIC!!!! What in the hell does that mean!?!! Another great “we don’t friggin know, but rather than stop it let’s just wait and see, shall we!??!?” Speculations as to the effects range from clogged gut (uh, death) to reduced ability to procreate to somehow allowing all that microscopic plastic to make it’s way up the chain to collect in the tissues or blood streams of the larger animals in the sea – fishes, whales, dolphins, seals. All those critters we seem to care so much about and will stop at nothing to save – except that plastic bag, that wrapper, that toothbrush, TV, and so on ad nauseum.
Naysayers are of course on the scene already – thanks to the accessibility of the internet any arse with a smartphone can set up a blog. Damn, I miss the days before the internet. But any reasonable human being can be nothing but shocked and possibly even a bit concerned at these findings. What you should be even more concerned about is how difficult it really is to make even a small attempt to go plastic-free. Try it – go to your grocery store and try one shopping trip that doesn’t bring ANY plastic into your home. It is sadly a nearly impossible task, nearly no matter where you are in the world. The reason? Plastics are really useful, and altered our species ability accomplish everyday tasks so greatly that we are nearly unable to conceive of human life on earth without them. It is the very thing we desire most that in the end may poison us – irony at it’s best.
And now for my disclaimer – I’m as guilty as the next chump. My family lives on a sailboat made of plastic. Hull? Plastic. Sails? Plastic. Water and engine hoses? Plastic. Gaskets? Plastic. Seat cushions? Plastic. Foam in my mattress? Plastic. Lines, halyards, sheets? Plastic. Navigational aids? Plastic. Life preservers? Plastic. Hell, it you stripped our boat of all plastic all you’d have left is a mast, engine block, BBQ grill, a propeller and shaft and some winches and pulleys. None of that shit floats well on its own, that is for certain. But these things have an extended service life, and when cared for properly can easily last as long as their wood and metal counterparts. Although not permanent in nature, they would not be classified as “disposable.” And that is the keyword of the day, folks.
Let’s discuss the word “disposable” for a moment, shall we? If you’re still reading you either give a crap or want to hit me in the head with a rock, and on the latter I wish you good luck. Here is the Webster definition:
1. an article designed to be thrown away after use.
Ex. “don’t buy disposables, such as razors, cups, and plates”
I love the grammatical example given by Webster – really choice for this discussion, no? “Thrown away after use…” Hmmm… Where away? Away from ourselves, that’s where, for someone or thing else to deal with in whatever manner. We’ve used it for it’s little purpose and just don’t care what happens to it. That’s the problem right there, the conundrum of disposables. Thankfully we are at least beginning to recycle things. Let’s face it, though, we clearly are doing a crappy job. How crappy is it, really? Unknown. Yup. We have a better idea of how many galaxies and stars there are in the universe than how bad this really is. Estimates of the plastic “island” within the North Pacific gyre ALONE range from the size of Texas to TWICE the area of the continental US. You read it correctly. Go on back again and re-read it. That’s what you would call a major discrepancy. It is primarily due to the microscopic bits I discussed earlier, which cannot yet be detected via satellite imagery but only via water sampling. And that is only one of the aforementioned “plastic islands” out in the seas of the world. The island is the part we see, but the plastic “sediment,” which may sink or float depending on the type, is the real unknown.
So what do we do about it? I can’t speak for you – you’re going to do whatever you’re going to do, and I can’t hold your hand or admonish you for whatever choices you make as an individual. Know this, though – the choices you make DO have an effect, no matter how small. A discussion on this subject with your friends and family will have an effect. Simple decisions, like “no, I’ve got my own bags,” or “please don’t double bag those,” or better yet how about just putting the apples in your cart without that super thin, worthless produce bag that you are going to tear open as soon as you get home anyway? I’m always amazed at the number of comments by cashiers and baggers at a grocer on the latter two. Yes, I can make it work with just one bag if I forgot my own, and yes, I am going to wash those apples anyway and don’t need the produce bag. Is there some form of ecoli on your countertop that I should be made aware of, or do you clean the place somewhat regular? Oh, good – because nearly everything in here is edible, and keeping the place clean should be a bit of a priority. Thanks.
No, I can’t change you. I can’t even change the world – sorry optimists. But I CAN change my habits and at least greatly economize my use of plastics wherever possible. In many cases, doing so is going to both save me money and/ or drive me to consuming healthier foods with less processing and packaging. I always say to folks that are interested in this subject that if you’d like to find an immediate source of economic waste in your life (meaning money down the tubes), look in your trash. Are you unnecessarily replacing cell phones, computers, TV’s, and the like? Do you dote over your children in excess and constantly purchase new plastic toys as opposed to maybe finding some second-hand ones and engaging in more of a “trade” system? There are great resources out there set up by folks who really give a deuce about this where you can find good quality and well cared for items in these departments – ebay is just one of them, but a great example. Whether they give a care or not about the environment, they put re-use on the map as a major economic driver – nearly 18 BILLION dollars in net revenue for 2014 – this of course doesn’t account for the used/ new differentiation, but is a TON of cash regardless and larger than the GDP of many countries. This is significant any way you shake it. And most of the things I’ve ever bought from ebay came to me in re-used boxes and packing materials. Not so much as a solution as a good start, and I’ll take it for now.
The real underlying question is this: do we want change, or do we want TO change?
That’s up to each and every one of us, and for those decisions we will at some point be held to account, so let’s all be better by doing better.
Thanks for reading.