Living in California I know a thing or two about being plastic. Synthetic eyelash extensions? Why not?! Deadly botulism injected into the muscles in my forehead causing temporary flaccid paralysis? Sure, hit me up! Carroty brown spray tan? Yes please! (Though I’ve been assured that the base of the spray tan stuff is made from raspberries… please, don’t judge.) Let’s just say, I’m no stranger to trying a lot of stuff that is not all together ‘natural’. Though most times I look back and think, “What the hell was I thinking?” Anyone who has tried eyelash extensions and can’t get in to see their lash person after four weeks and has one weird long eyelash stuck on their upper lid, will know what I’m talking about.
I recently took a flight to Las Vegas with my daughter to meet a brother, technically a ½ brother, who I never new existed until three months ago. (This is a post for another day. I’m still trying to get my arms around the experience. See, we have so much to talk about!) Anywho, as my daughter and I were boarding the flight to Vegas, the land of The Ultra, Mega Plastics, the flight attendant smashing our tickets on the electronic reader window thingy, kindly held up a basket of shiny gold plastic pilot’s wings for my daughter. My father was a Captain for United for many years, so this seemingly thoughtful gesture would have had particular meaning to us.
My daughter looked at the glittering basket of golden little wings solemnly. Then she looked up at me with equal gravity. Then she said to the flight attendant, “No. No thank you. I better not.” The flight attendant smiled brightly, maybe she was perplexed, or maybe she didn’t care. But it was nothing to her, the basket of wings would be emptied soon enough by parents and children thrilled for the momentary distraction.
What the flight attendant didn’t know was that this was the first time my daughter showed real understanding of what that basket of pilot wings were going to become. In AA we call this ‘thinking through the drink’, looking at the possible impending disasters brought on by one small, thoughtless choice. It was the first time my daughter took ownership of The Plastics and all of their terrible consequences.
Because my daughter has been studying plastic, she now understands that statistically, those fun little wings are likely to end up shredding the belly of some creature who would logically assume the gold little flashes in a trash heap or in the ocean were fish.
Recently one of my friends from college, DJ O’Neil, hired two artists on behalf of the Monterey Bay Aquarium to create a life-sized whale made completely of landfill plastic. The massive whale has a gentle grace to it, and is now on display on Crissy Field, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. Every day as I approach the bridge on my way home from work, I see the whale skimming the surface of the emerald green grass, it’s heavy blue body catching the sun.
I got to speak with the Bay Area artists, Joel Dean Stockdill and co-creator Yustina Salnikova, who chose the endangered blue whale as the subject of the art installation to draw a connection between plastic pollution and its impact on marine life around the world. The largest animal ever to live on Earth, a blue whale can weigh about 300,000 pounds – the approximate weight of plastic that ends up in the ocean every nine minutes.
When we asked what it was like working with the landfill plastic, Joel and Yustina told stories of trying to clean the endless piles of chemically laundry detergent bottles, sticky, dirty soda bottles, cheap plastic grocery bags, 409 bottles, Fantastik bottles, and Clorox bottles. Yustina said just cleaning the searing, noxious chemicals and junk off the plastic took hours and hours before they could even melt it to mold it. They had to run all of the plastic through a massive old clothes washer. And because not all plastic is created equal, some of the plastic (plastic bags) just turned to hot goop when they tried to heat it, while other plastics held firm so they could mold it.
But here is the most shocking thing I learned, of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has ever been produced since the creation of plastic, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. The vast majority is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off into the natural environment as litter.
The most widely accepted statistic is that only 9% of plastic is truly recycled. Which means 91% is not recycled. I will say again, 91% of plastic is not recycled. Which means all of that plastic (and the chemicals it once held) is being dumped into the delicate, once spectacular, living living rooms of some of the most fascinating, colorful, intelligent life forms on the planet.
The irony of fragile clown fish, social and smart dolphin, octopus, shrimp, anemone and coral stewing in filthy poisonous Tide detergent is brutal. More brutal is waking up to the fact that, being a clean freak; I’m probably guiltier than anyone of contributing to this repulsive mess.
And here is the most astounding statistic; none of the plastic will ever go away. Ever. Ever ever ever. Not for 450 to 1,000 years. It will never degrade.
How much time do we spend with a plastic bottle of Diet Coke? Or embarrassingly in my case, the endless bottles of sparkling water I drank up until a few weeks ago. A few minutes? Till it’s no longer cold? Then it’s headed somewhere, but most likely not to be recycled. Coca-Cola uses a combined 6.6% recycled plastics.
I’m the worst. I’ve bought into all of it. I’ve fallen for the lies. My entire life, a multi-cultural rainbow of very attractive women in their mid 30s, wearing denim shirts rolled up at the sleeves and oddly gender neutralizing jeans, have knelt on hundreds of sparkly linoleum, or tile, or stone or polished wood floors selling me poisonous chemicals contained in environmentally destructive plastic, to clean my relatively clean home. Generally a darling matching baby and golden retriever puppy are playing on these chemically clean floors to subliminally tell me that if carcinogenic chemicals are good enough for her baby and puppy, then they are good for mine too!
I mean, how dirty is my house? I don’t have disease-infected feces smeared around my kitchen (though if you’ve eaten my cooking there may be an argument there). Why do I need burning chemicals to spray on every surface of my tidy house? Why haven’t I just taken a warm rag to wipe my surfaces down? I have bought an endless sea (literally) of plastic bottles filled with terrible chemicals because Dow, Clorox, P&G and hundreds of commercials have sold me the lie that this is the responsible way to clean my home. I realize I’m late to this party, but better late than never. It’s like I just realized for the first time my contributions to the ever-growing continents of plastic accumulating in our life-giving oceans.
The next time you step into your favorite grocery store, here’s an idea, observe with fresh eyes how much plastic is in that store. Really breathe it all in. All that plastic in its lurid, colorful, slutty glory. Just bask in all that plastic. It’s not going anywhere. Why we are buying this shit? Why have we bought into the fact that we need this plastic Thneed?
As I sit here, locked in my house, trying to escape from the thick, putrid, cloud graying out the sun, created by the burning California Camp Fire; I’m acutely aware today of how critical the ocean is for all of us to survive. The vast, cleaning cooling ocean.
A yoga student said to me yesterday, “We’re not just inhaling burning trees! We’re inhaling the flesh of burning animals!” I had to refrain from saying “Uh, sister, what do you think happens at a barbecue?” But I’ve learned to be quiet. I’ve found no one likes a snarky vegetarian yoga teacher.
But when it comes to plastic, maybe using one less bottle a week, a year, maybe forever, is this is possible? I heard David Katz deliver a TED talk on cleaning plastic out of the oceans. He said something that made a lot of sense to me. Paraphrasing, he said cleaning the plastic out of the ocean is like seeing a faucet turned on, dumping water into an overflowing sink, and then grabbing a mop. The first thing we have to do is to turn off the faucet, and drastically reduce or stop the use of plastic.
My nephew Matt Keown is a diver, snorkeler and lover of the ocean. We got to talking, trying to think about what we could do to save the oceans. So I guess this is the start, waking up, naming it and then taking action.
I’ll be posting recipes and ideas for plastic alternatives. Today I did a load of laundry with hydrogen peroxide and a few drops of lavender essential oil. Hydrogen peroxide is degradable and available in glass bottles, and is the ‘Oxi’ in Oxiclean. So far so good, the clothes look and smell great.
I’m not sure how to wrap up this diatribe, but Dr. Seuss, the prescient canary in the coalmine about many things, seems to resonate with me the most:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not.”