Battling plastic, one bag at a time

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In 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burned after years of industrial pollution. This event, and the newfound emphasis on environmental issues, spurred me to a life-long obssession with garbage.

My ex-husband used to call me Eco Annie. And with good reason. I’ve always had a problem with garbage.

I spent a good deal of my youth as a Girl Scout, where my annual trips to camp allowed me to revel in the myriad pristine wonders of nature, and where the code was always to leave the environmnet as you’d found it: pack in/pack out. As a kid growing up in the 60s, I watched the grainy TV footage of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River as it burned, the result of an oil spill caused by decades of industrial pollution. My father – a trout fisherman who, to my dismay at the time, made me practice fly casting into a garbage can lid in our driveway, sat in horrified silence as the fire raged.

Later, Iron Eyes Cody, the stoic native American, implored us to Keep America Beautiful, as a tear ran down his rugged cheek, a response to the pollution that was destroying the natural beauty of America.

So, perhaps it was not surprising that one day, upon seeing the brook near my New Jersey home plugged with garbage, I waded in, extracted the debris – which included a rusting bicycle – and watched in satisfaction as the stream ran free.

Forty years later, I m still trying to clean up the world around me. I recycle with a vengeance, wishing my boys paid more attention to which items go into which container. “Please rinse the cans and jars,” I implore. “And cardboard boxes should be collapsed. And, no, you can’t put banana peels in the recycle bin.”

Under the kitchen sink there’s a large glass jar for bits of leftovers which feed the fat worms living in the compost bin out by the garden. Yard waste, as well, is sifted into the container, which, eventually – if one is very patient – produces yummy-smelling dark soil.

When I wheel the garbage cans to the curb each week, I feel a great sense of satisfaction when the trash container is virtually empty and the recycle bin is full.

But then. . .there’s plastic. Recently, I decided to quit. But, damn, it’s hard! And there’s no patch for that.

The day I decided to stop using plastic, I picked up the bread at the bakery and requested only paper bags. I didn’t know they were rather short and almost lost a sliced loaf on the floor. I requested a paper bag for my purchase at another bakery – yes, I have a thing for bakeries – which was placed in my reusable canvas tote. Feeling very righteous and smug, I went home and discovered the young lady had ignored my request. A plastic bag winked at me accusingly.

Plastic bags, I fear, have become the most ubiquitous items on the planet, though, on a good note, they can be recycled at the grocery store. So there is yet another container in my kitchen just for plastic bags.

I often freeze food in gallon Ziplock bags. But, of course, they are plastic. So, I went on line and ordered silicon containers, which were touted to be “eco friendly,” but which are hard open and close and which don’t stack or stand up very well. I also ordered glass food storage containers, only to discover they came with plastic lids. Eieee!

The next day, I had to mail a book and the lady at Fed Ex produced a shipping bag: white, bubbled, plastic. “Don’t you have cardboard?” I asked. She informed me that I could purchase a cardboard container for $1.39. I did. And, as I am often mailing books, I discovered quitting plastic can be expensive.

A trip to the grocery store almost reduced me to tears. What isn’t incased in plastic? And then there’s that most horrifying experience for those of us afflicted with ecoitis: plastic covering Styrofoam. One list that identifies the years it takes items to biodegrade places plastic and Styrofoam in the same frightening category: 500 years to forever.

The recent news that a remote South Pacific island is awash in plastic has renewed my devotion to the cause.

“Henderson Island ought to be one of the most pristine places on earth: an uninhabited South Pacific atoll so remote that the nearest human settlement is the small island 120 miles away,” said reporter Austin Ramsey in a May New York Times article. “But the atoll’s white sand beaches are littered with tons of multicolored plastic junk, deposited there by ocean currents. A new study. . .estimated that there were 17.6 tons of debris on the shores of the tiny island. (Researchers) counted more than 53,100 pieces of man-made debris, largely made of plastic — bottles, cigarette lighters, fishing gear, all kinds of things.”

As a scuba diver, the thought of a reef covered with garbage breaks my heart. Divers are taught to be stewards of the underwater environment. Man-made items that appear on reefs should be removed, with the caveat that an object which has become home to a sea creature should be left untouched.

Being an eco warrior can be uncomfortable, at times. I’ve seen my companions rolling their eyes when I flinch as the server approaches with a Styrofoam container and I request a cardboard box for my leftovers. I sometimes feel like a vegan at a barbecue.

In the movie Wall-e, about the wee waste-collecting robot who endlessly tries to clean up Earth, the Captain says, “Out there is our home. And it’s in trouble. I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

So, I forge on, one plastic bag at a time.

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Today, much – though not all – of the Cuyahoga runs unpolluted, and the once burning river is now known for helping to create America’s Clean Water Act.

 

Anne Montgomery’s new novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.including.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

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