Ecology & Travel: Thoughts from the Beach

A week after the earthquake and tsunami, in the midst of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima power plant, we left for vacation, an exotic trip funded almost a year earlier by a little financial windfall.

As it came time to pack we were still glued to video images of destruction nearly beyond comprehension and the possibility of nuclear meltdown hung in precarious balance. We found it decidedly difficult to pull out of the story and head into a week of isolation and relaxation. We were headed to a small island—more of a sandbar, really, 35 miles off the coast of Belize at the point where the atolls of coral fall away to 2000+ feet (610+ meters).  It took us two days to get there and two days to get home: we bid the last CNN feed goodbye in the Houston airport, and let go…

It was impossible, upon arriving, to avoid thinking of our vulnerability—the high point of land being about one meter above current sea level. And it was gorgeous… azure waters, amazing fish swimming around coral patch reefs, and lots of athletic opportunities we could practice at whatever level of competence we brought.  And, we were completely unplugged: didn’t think about filling seminars, book-sales, or who wants to “friend me” all week! I prayed for the people of Japan, for the people of Libya, for safety to prevail in the world, and surrendered to a week of awesome fun in nature.

The last day of our visit, the camp staff gave everyone a large capacity garbage bag and the challenge to walk around the edges of the island and collect whatever needed picking up. There would be contests for “most useful, most unusual,” etc.  As a group of about 20, this meant we filled 20 bags with gifts from the sea—Styrofoam of every shape and size, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic picnic forks, fast-food containers, more plastic water bottles, old running shoes, ruined snorkel gear, fishing line, more plastic bags. Prize for most useful, a condom, still sealed in its packet; prize for most unusual, a front grill for a Honda car. And then what?

What do they do with 20 bags of plastic garbage? Well—they burn it in a tucked away clearing in the midst of the sea grape and coco-palm trees, down near the Osprey nest.  They will send the Honda grill back to mainland, where it may be tossed into a landfill—or just into a ditch on the road into Belize City. We’re not talking about high-tech incineration with careful gasification and attempts to neutralize noxious and poisonous off-gases (still a debatable success): we’re talking about a campfire of unsorted chemical formulas, minus the marshmallows, lit when most the guests are off frolicking in kayaks and snorkeling over a nearby reef—grateful that the coral is still alive and the fishes seem healthy.

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I loved the week away: and realized—there is no away. We are always “here,” living with the problems we have created for ourselves and our little blue planet.

So, back home, and back on the Internet, I have spent some time this week trying to understand a bit more about the challenges to the use, mis-use, recycling, and attempts to unmake plastic. One good source is the site: pollutionissues.com This site declares that, “More than a hundred billion pounds of plastic were produced in 2000. Their increased use has resulted in concern with (1) the consumption of natural resources such as oil, (2) the toxicity associated with their manufacture and use, and (3) the environmental impact arising from discarded plastics.”

One can presume that this is an annual production amount—enough to make reefs of plastic off the shores of many countries—as well as the floating islands of plastic now viewable from space. Look for plastic heaps on Google Earth—they are everywhere.

The point is: every gesture in our daily lives matters. Everything is connected to everything.  The radioactive seawater that was pumped into the reactors to prevent one disaster is now back in the sea where it will create some other kind of disaster.  We are facing a huge learning curve concerning the consequences of what we have “made”—plastic, nuclear waste, the ingredients to face cream and over the counter drugs. “Better living through chemistry,” a DuPont corporation advertising slogan from the 1950s, is absolutely embedded in modern life.

The difference between Whidbey Island where I live and Glover’s Reef in Belize is that we have more systems in place that make our attempts to put our garbage “someplace else” appear to work. We recycle, there is garbage truck pick-up, we take cloth bags to the grocery store, my own cup to the coffee shop– and it’s all still here. Somewhere around here…

I have increased my awareness of what I bring into my house, how I treat it once here, and where I put it when done. And I’m talking about garbage, thanking every restaurant and public place that serves food on cardboard or china—practicing as radically as I can little slogans, such as, “Just say NO to Styrofoam…” and refusing to accept things offered to me in plastic—foam, bottles, non-recyclable containers. For efficient—and entertaining– education about this, go out to Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff Project. Her cartoon videos make great family, neighborhood, and church conversation starters and her science, based on 20 years working in environmental health, is sound.

We talk a lot about making a new story… part of that story is what we will do with all the stuff that sustains and threatens modern life. So, let’s be bold and talk about garbage: what to do with what’s already here and how to prevent more and more garbage being made. Raise awareness in the social networks and media in your lives–and share some of your stories here.

And thank you!

http://www.storyofstuff.com/blog/

http://www.facebook.com/planettrash

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