We've Only Got One
I figured we could start off this post with a quick survey. It'll only take a moment and it won't be very difficult, I think.
What planet do you live on?
I mean that literally, not in a metaphorical or derogatory way. Which one of the big oblong things orbiting the Sun are you stuck to right now?
Just to move things along, I'm going to assume it's Earth, at least until Elon Musk gets us to Mars. After that this post still pertains to you lucky handful of Martians, though.
Earth is our home, our one and only, and we here at the shop feel really strongly about taking care of it. Do you ever watch that show Hoarders? It's ok, you can be honest, it's an addictive and guilty pleasure. Imagine one of those houses jam-packed with garbage and other refuse. You open the door and the smell hits you first, the smell of other peoples constant flow of waste--empty soda bottles, fast food bags with stale fries hanging out in the bottom, empty deodorant tubes, and, heaven forbid, diapers.
You can only walk down a narrow path from the front door to the couch because you're in the middle of a trash canyon, (great band name, by the way.) You see plastic clothes hangers smashed between the stratified layers of clamshell packages and junk mail. Somewhere in there is a book of those glittery star stickers we used to get in elementary school that will never find their home on the front of a spelling test. You don't want to find the kitchen, trust me.
Now expand that horrifying image to the size of Texas.
I imagine that many of us have heard of the trash maelstroms that swirl around our oceans, but just in case, there are TRASH MAELSTROMS in the OCEAN. A lot of trash, gathering in the natural gyres around the globe, turning to soup in the swirling salt water. Oh, and that Texas comparison is actually on the lowball side. Since a lot of the mass of these things is made up of degraded plastic particles under the surface of the water, (as well as differing definitions on what level of pollution qualifies an area as a part of the larger whole), it is hard to determine just how big they are. Under some measurements, the Great Pacific garbage patch is double the size of the continental U.S.
To be fair, the concept of a bunch of trash floating around and thinking about coalescing into a mutant sea monster is a bit skewed. As stated above a lot of this particular ocean waste is small, sometimes microscopic bits of plastic, yet there is plenty of good, old fashioned garbage out there too, don't worry.
Alright, now that we're all sufficiently disturbed and frustrated, what's the point? The problem of ocean waste is one of many ills that we have brought upon the Earth, and this post is the first of many to talk about these problems and give some solutions as to how we can all help reverse them. Sorry to be so doom and gloom about it, but sustainability is a real concern in a world that has become increasingly concerned with profit and convenience rather than ethical treatment of the place we are all gravitationally glued to.
What we'd like to examine this time is single-use plastics-- straws, bags, wrappers, bottles, and the like.
Here's a fun, (read: awful), exercise. Next time you go shopping look around the shelves and try to see all the different packaging that goes straight into the trash after you get it home. After the cashier kicks you out because its been six hours, think about all of that packaging being tossed every day, not only by you, but by every customer in every store in every city, ever.
It's a lot, and according to the Earth Institute at Columbia University as of 2012 in America only 6.5% of that waste is recycled per year, with an additional 7.7% used as fuel to generate heat or electricity. I don't imagine the rent next to a giant trash engine is very steep, so maybe I'll have a chance of moving out soon.
It would be a gross understatement to say that a ton of plastic ends up in the ocean per year, because its closer to eight million tons. That's a pretty unfathomable amount, but if every person in L.A. divided in two like an amoeba, then turned into two thousand pounds of plastic, it still wouldn't be as much as what actually ends up in the water.
So, what can we do?
Obviously recycling is a huge part of combatting the issue of pollution, and I encourage everyone to take part in some form of it. But, there is a reason the saying "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" goes in that order, because the most impact we can have is by reducing our consumption at the start. If there is one less water bottle in your cart, that's one less that the store needs to order, and one less that the manufacturer needs to make. The benefits are largely unseen but they are huge.
I can hear you, believe me. "Ok Mike," you're saying. "You've guilt tripped us to a sufficient degree. But what can I do about all of this?" Fear not, you can make a difference, right now, for not too much effort. Then I can stop proselytizing for a while.
First, since it's become a bit of a pet issue for us at the shop, stop with the plastic straws all the time. They are mind-numbingly pointless so much of the time, especially at a sit-down place. I drink iced tea like it's going out of style, and it happens too often when I go out that I'll end up with four empty glasses in front of me, each with a straw sticking up out of them like a big middle finger to Gaia.
I know, I know, it's hard to remember every time to ask for no straw, but it's worth it to build the habit. Your friends and family may laugh at you, but just tell them to look up the video of the sea turtle with the straw stuck up its nose and you'll look like St. Francis. In all seriousness though, don't look up that video if you have a weak stomach.
Hey, I'm a reasonable guy, though. I know there are times when a straw is necessary and/or preferable. You know what's the best? Reusable. Stainless. Steel. Straws. Get one, it'll change your world, and you'll look, like, super cool.
I'll make it easy for today, and we'll only talk about one more thing to work on, plastic bags. According to Plastic Oceans, a local organization spreading awareness about the massive garbage issue we've been talking about, the average "working life" of a plastic bag is only fifteen minutes. Even reusing a bag once is probably enough to double that. Better than that of course, would be avoiding their use altogether. Have you seen the reusable bags at Sprouts lately? Primo stuff. Also, something that was news to us over here is the availability of reusable produce bags as well. No more will we have to struggle to find which side of those wispy, clingy things is the business end, and some pelican out there will thank us for not making it choke on another piece of trash.
There are so many ways in which we can, and should, reduce the amount of waste that we produce in this disposable-minded culture, but I think this is a fine place to leave off for today. Small steps lead to large distances, and I think straws and bags are the small changes we can all focus on for now.
For more information on the big, gross things we're doing to the ocean, visit www.plasticoceans.org, it's a great read.
Until next time.