“Why do you care so much?” a colleague of mine asked me recently.
We were on a business trip. After days of sharing a space with co-workers (who also happen to be friends) whose attitude toward trash was quite different than mine, my frustration was building. I was visibly irritated at her failure to use the recycling bin, and yet, I was reluctant to jump on my soapbox. I didn’t want to hide my feelings. I didn’t want to force them down her throat either. I know that not everyone is passionate about where their garbage goes.
Instead, I merely stated that I cared about the environment and we went about our day.
The truth is, I care a lot about the environment, specifically about garbage. Garbage is one of my hobbies. Or rather, my hobby is not creating garbage.
At one time, I devoted much energy and many hours researching how to best dispose of everything I used and then disposing of it. I’ve packed plastic cups out of concerts and plastic utensils out of friend’s homes. I’ve packed recyclables in my suitcase and brought them home from a foreign country. I know this sounds crazy, but I enjoyed it.
Then I learned that many of the things we use are not actually recyclable, like some bottle caps or goldenrod colored envelopes, or black plastics. Of course, many things are recyclable, but not everything is recyclable in all places. Sometimes if non-recyclables get mixed in with recyclables, the whole lot is landfilled because it’s not worth the trouble it takes to sort.
Recycling is not a perfect system, nor is it cut and dried. I would never be able to do it perfectly, so I decided to limit my use of disposable items as much as possible.
I compost my food garbage, bring cloth bags to the grocery store, carry a reusable cup for coffee and keep a set of silverware in my office drawer. I make my own cleaning products and clean with reusable rags and compostable sponges. Whatever I can’t compost, I go out of my way to recycle – it’s still a necessity. By making a few simple changes, I’ve eliminated a large amount of plastic waste from my everyday life. I send about one bag of trash from my home to a landfill monthly.
I do all of this because it’s estimated that there is close to 300,000 tons of plastic floating in our oceans. Everyday items like toothbrushes, pens, cigarette lighters and marker caps are floating in five large gyres, thousands of miles wide. Sea birds mistake plastic bobbing on the ocean’s surface for food, eating it and feeding it to their chicks. The plastic takes up space in the animal’s stomachs keeping them from eating real food and causing them to starve.
If there is no change in our production and consumption of plastics, in just 35 years, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Plastic particles are already making their way up the food chain to humans.
Plastic never truly breaks down, it only degrades into smaller pieces over time. Every piece of plastic we have ever used is still on this earth.
Once I learned this, I could never unlearn it. I had to make changes.
In the days after the conversation with my colleague, I was kicking myself at the missed opportunity. She seemed genuinely curious. Maybe I could have made a believer out of her, had I taken it in stride.
The interaction also served as a wake-up call to myself. I had reached a plateau. Maybe I wasn’t using plastic bags or forks or disposable coffee cups but I was still using plastic – toothbrushes, containers, the odd water bottle, drinking straws. I was accepting the status quo instead of working to find better, more sustainable practices in my line of work. I was being passive about my beliefs instead of owning them. I had to be better.
However, there is a dilemma that goes along with this – how can we be active without alienating those around us who may not see things as we do?
It’s not easy and it isn’t a zero sum game. We aren’t going to change everyone.
A few years ago I realized that the only behavior I can control is my own. Still, I can’t help wanting to spread the message. There are plenty of people around me (some of my best friends and closest relatives) who don’t know, or don’t want to think about the problem. There are others who have implemented changes in their lifestyles after our conversations, which is a source of hope.
I don’t live in an echo chamber, nor do I want to. I’ve thought about moving to a city that has a more eco-friendly infrastructure than New York. I’ve struggled internally with the amount of waste created in my line of work, but taking my toys and going home is not productive. As Bill McKibbon has pointed out, environmentalists live in the world we’re trying to change and change, not perfection, is the point.
That said, it’s up to us to influence the world around us where we can. To be the change you want to see in the world, you must be bold enough to be different, confident enough to speak up, self-reliant enough to stray from the pack and creative enough to find solutions. We can’t retreat to our corners where we feel comfortable. Those corners wouldn’t exist if others before us didn’t raise their hands and open their mouths.
I don’t intend to get on my soapbox every time I’m frustrated, but I do intend to stop scowling about the things I don’t agree with and start making change. That means implementing more ways to reduce trash in my life and finding ways to do things sustainably in my industry, even where they may not currently exist.
When you are discouraged by what you see, call upon yourself to do one more thing.