Tuesday, August 14, 2012

In Praise of Beth Terry's book "Plastic Free"

 (not actually my house)
Those of you who know me even a smidge know that I really like am a bit obsessed with reading. Except for my husband and dogs, there are few things I adore more than cracking open a really good book, smelling that great book smell, and immersing myself in a new world (I have yet to join the e-book world). I read more fiction than non-fiction; my life is currently more intense than I’d like it to be, and so I often escape in the evenings by reading. I have little patience for poorly written or just plain stupid books – I’ve finally given myself permission to stop reading if I’m not totally enthralled by page 30 or so.  I find that when I read non-fiction I am even more demanding – not only do books have to be well-written but I really need them to
have content that feels valuable to me.

Which brings us to today’s post. Below is a review (actually, it’s a blatant love note and a rather impartial recommendation, but….) of Beth Terry’s Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can, Too.

 The short version: Read it. It’s smart, concise, upbeat, engaging and filled with positive steps that anyone can take towards lessening the use of plastic. The book also explains why we need to care about plastic, and covers everything from recycling (where do things go when they go “away”?) to how to keep from feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. The main focus of this book is solutions rather than problems, and is a starting point for activism. A big thumbs-up!

The longer version:
I’ve lived at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage for 13 years now and consider myself fairly savvy about environmental issues. While I don’t keep up on all the current controversies (such as which company we’ve been asked to boycott this week, etc.) I try to live the best I can. Our home and the building that houses our business, the Milkweed Mercantile, are made of local straw bales, reclaimed wood and other fairly low-impact materials. Both are powered by a wind turbine and solar panels. We are now connected to the grid, which eliminates the lead-acid batteries in which we used to store our power (we now use the national grid instead) and have a commitment to putting back twice as much power as we use. I don’t own a car but instead belong to a vehicle cooperative where I share two cars and a truck (let’s not forget about that tractor!) with 50 other people. I support local farmers and gardeners and dairies and try to eat as organically as possible. Our water is collected rainwater, our heat comes from locally harvested wood or scraps from a local pallet mill. And so on.

All of this pales in comparison to what Beth Terry is doing. As a fan of her blog (formerly Fake Plastic Fish, now MyPlasticFreeLife) I came to realize that while Beth and I have had similar experiences, we have taken two different paths. I am ashamed to say that my response was rather lacking in moral conviction, while she continues to walk her talk, every single day.

In 2008, while I was leading a Coast-to-Coast hike in northern England for the Sierra Club, we stopped at a small cove on the western coast. The beach was covered with plastic detritus – bottle caps of every color and size, syringes, plastic soda and milk bottles, and lots of odd pieces that were unidentifiable as anything except hunks of plastic. It was stunning in how utterly the trash covered the area. But what really depressed me was when our local friends told us that just three days before a group of folks had come down and picked up every bit of plastic and hauled dozens of bags away. With each incoming tide came a new delivery of plastic trash. Every. Single. Day.

After returning home, I read about the growing problem of what has been termed “marine litter,”  the Pacific Gyre Trash Island and the Algalita Marine Research Institute.

Before reading these articles I just thought the plastic mess was simply ugly. Now I realized that it was incredibly harmful to just about every living thing on the planet.

It gnawed at me, but I couldn’t really think of anything I could actually do – I don’t use plastic water bottles, I haul around my own grocery bags (according to the UN plastic bags and PET bottles re the most pervasive type of marine litter around the world, accounting for over 80 per cent of all rubbish collected in several of the regional seas assessed), and I don’t smoke (cigarette filters, tobacco packets and cigar tips make up 40 per cent of all marine litter in the Mediterranean).

Through those sites I found Chris Jordan’s photos of Laysan Albatross chicks on Midway Island. My reaction? Nausea. Repulsion. Deep sadness. However, I didn’t change much about my life, or talk about it much, or even consider what impact I might have if I put my mind to it. The issue felt way too big, way too global, way too much for me to make a difference.

This is the part I love. Beth became depressed, too. But she soon got over it, and moved on to mad. Here’s a snippet from the introduction to Plastic Free:

"In the summer of 2007, I was stuck at home for several weeks recuperating from an operation... I soon came to an article by journalist Susan Casey, entitled “Our Oceans are Turning Into Plastic . . . Are We?”—in, of all places, the online version of the magazine Men’s Health—and the shocking photo that would change everything.

The picture showed the decomposed carcass of a Laysan albatross, an ungainly looking sea bird that nests on Midway Island, which is halfway between California and Japan surrounded by thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean. The flesh of this particular bird—a chick!—had fallen away to reveal a rib cage filled with plastic bottle caps, disposable cigarette lighters, even a toothbrush—small pieces of plastic that had no business out there in the middle of nowhere. Pieces of plastic like those I myself used and tossed away every day.

Frozen in my desk chair, I stared at the awful image. For several seconds, I literally could not breathe.

And then, I forced myself to read the entire article. Tragically, this chick was not unique. Thousands of albatross mothers mistake tiny plastic pieces for food floating on the surface of the ocean. They swallow them up from the waters of the North Pacific Gyre, an area between the United States and Japan that is increasingly becoming known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” because of all the plastic waste collecting there, and fly back to Midway to feed this “food” to their chicks. Except that plastic is not food. Huge numbers of baby albatrosses die of starvation each year, their bellies full of the dross of human civilization—the stuff that you and I throw away casually every day. And while the body of the bird will finally disintegrate and return to the earth, the plastic that killed it will linger on in the environment, never biodegrading, available once again to be eaten by future birds, so that the deadly cycle would continue. I sat and stared at the screen for half an hour, letting my heart break.

As I thought of how I used and tossed away pieces of plastic just like these every day, I felt as if, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, I had helped kill this albatross.

I knew my life had to change. And that, like the mariner, I had to tell people about the albatross.
The day I saw that photo, I committed to looking at my own plastic consumption and plastic waste and figuring out what changes I could make. 

By day, I continued my accounting job. But nights and weekends were consumed by plastic! In the years since my plastic awakening, I’ve gone from personally generating almost four pounds of plastic waste per month to a little over two pounds per year (the average American generates between 88 and 120 pounds per year, and that's only what they throw away at home!), and I am continuing the downward trend. 

No one’s perfect, least of all me. This journey is ongoing. … I’m in it for the long haul. And I still experience some of the frustrations and challenges I did back in 2007. I didn’t write this book to tell anyone what to do, but as an invitation to join me in this journey of personal and ecological discovery.”

That’s just the introduction. The book feels like a rip-roaring adventure that the reader can actually participate in. There is so much to learn, and absolutely NO preaching.  I find myself feeling better, more empowered, and considering the idea that maybe, just maybe, I can make a dent in what is happening in the world.

Thanks Beth, for reminding me about the power of one!


PS Chris Jordan and his team are making a film about the albatross chicks and Midway Island. 
PPS Join me on Goodreads to share book recommendations and opinions!

PPPS A couple of things I learned from Beth’s book:
  1. I still love Tom’s of Maine Toothpaste (even though it’s now owned by Colgate-Palmolive) but find the new plastic tubes offensive. The solution? Send them back to the company. The Milkweed Mercantile is now a Tom’s tube recycling center for Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.
  2. There is a website called Tapitwater.comhttp://www.tapitwater.com/?cel=1 where you can find businesses that will let you fill your reuseable water bottles with tap water. Check it out!
  3. A free downloadable Reader's Guide for Plastic Free is available by clicking here.