I’m ashamed to admit it, but until a few months ago, I’d never thought too deeply about my lasting impact on the planet. That’s not to say that I haven’t been preached to on a litany of environmental subjects since I was a child via various media outlets. After all, I didn’t grow up in a bubble…or at least I thought I didn’t.
At 37, I’m a semi-well-traveled world citizen who keeps up with the news and cares about her fellow lifeforms. I would never dream of releasing a balloon into the wild, or of drinking a beer without carefully cutting apart the plastic 6-pack rings. I’d certainly never throw my trash on the street. I buy most of my clothes used, try to eat organic when I can afford it, and wouldn’t consider using a product that isn’t labeled cruelty free. By appearances, I’m taking responsible steps to be kind to our planet.
But appearances aren’t reality. It turns out that “all” of the things I’ve been doing to “save the planet” are not much. Like many Americans, I’ve been brainwashed into thinking that I’m making some sort of grand, impactful gesture when I cut up a 6-pack ring, or choose to carry my groceries home in my purse instead of using a free plastic shopping bag.
Sure, these are things that we should all be doing. But in reality, they’re just the tip of the (quickly melting) iceberg; these aren’t grand gestures – they’re barely note-worthy basic motions that any thoughtful human should undertake. Deciding not to use a plastic bag should be second nature. It is rote self-preservation mixed with courtesy, like choosing to look both ways before entering traffic, or covering your mouth when you cough.
I’m puzzled by how it’s taken me so long to get to a point where I truly began to understand the extent of my role in the death of the planet, but I know the exact moment that it started. I watched a video of a dolphin at the moment it gets caught in a plastic shopping bag. Experiencing its horror at the situation, watching its frantic barrel rolls to get the bag off of its head, even just thinking about it now makes me nauseous. The bottom line is this: it’s my fault, just as much as if I’d placed the bag in the ocean myself. Because this isn’t about littering. It’s about choosing to use products that we have known to be unsafe for decades. Every day for 37 years, I’ve been given many choices to make the right call, and every day I’ve failed, with little to no remorse.
And now we’ve reached a point of probable no return. A cursory Google search of “whales bellies plastic” will give you 15 solid search pages of articles discussing recently beached dead whales that, upon autopsy, were found to be full of plastic – literally starved to death from the inability to process the trash they’d mistakenly ingested. Studies on sea turtle hatchlings in the U.S. and Australia in 2018 found alarming rates of nano-plastic ingestion in the babies, resulting in malnutrition and death.
We are bombarded with photos of turtles, fish, and birds being slowly choked to death by garbage in the sea, and there are now five known floating garbage patches in the ocean, with the largest of them, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, measuring roughly three times the size of Texas, or nearly a million square miles.
I theorize that maybe I didn’t pay as much attention to our trash problem because it was “in the ocean” and thus outside of my everyday sphere. It didn’t quite seem real, because I live on dry land. That’s a stupid excuse, but it’s the only way I can begin to explain my monumental stupidity and callousness.
If you, too, are reading this and find yourself thinking “Hey, it’s just the ocean – we’ll figure it out soon, it’s not that big of a deal,” why don’t we talk about what’s happening right here on dry land? According to a recent study in the Environmental Science and Technology journal, humans ingest up to 52,000 plastic particles a year. This estimate goes up to about 70,000 if we account for plastic dust particles we breathe. Another fun fact is that it rains and snows plastic, even in the most remote areas. A 2018 joint study by the University of Strathclyd and Ecolab found 249 plastic particles per square meter in an area of the French Pyrenees formerly thought of as pristine.
This is just a fragment – forgive the unfortunate pun – of the information that’s out there about the devastation our planet is undergoing. For the sake of brevity, I’m not discussing fossil fuel’s role in climate change, or the effect of our castoff plastic waste on the countries where our trash gets sent for recycling and/or storage. And to be clear, I know that there are other pressing pollution issues (for example, textiles, electronics, and chemical byproducts, just to name a few). Tackling one doesn’t mean forgetting about the others – it just means putting some issues on the back burner for a moment while you figure out the best way to approach the issue at hand.
In the past, I’ve read about pollution with a shrug. A “well, that sucks, but what can I do?” There’s always been a boogey man – the fossil fuels industry. They were the ones responsible for this. They should be responsible for getting us out. Give them sanctions. Make them change their evil ways! Save the innocent consumer!
But I see now that I was wrong. I am the boogey man. I am the one with the choice – and the responsibility – to change. And so are you. We are none of us released from the moral obligation to care for other living things – which means caring, first and foremost, for our planet. Pretty sure that we’ve already run out of time to reverse this mess, but that doesn’t mean that we’re out of time to choose to be better humans, and to live in kindness, fighting our hardest to right the massive wrong we have done to our earth, our children, and all other living beings on this planet who depend on us right now to wake up and pay attention to our duty as stewards.
So what will we do? Learn. Change. Fight back. Help other people learn, change, and start fighting, too. A great place to start right now would be to join #PlasticFreeJuly, and take a pledge right now to give up single use plastics for the month of July. I personally have resolved to drastically cut back on purchasing any items that contain plastic, permanently. At the moment, it’s not financially feasible to achieve a 100% plastic-free life (I mean, I’m typing this on a plastic computer keyboard, after all), but we can start making strong steps in the right direction. We don’t need to be perfect right now – we just need to get started.