Get Involved: The Science of Marine Debris

Readers! I have exciting news. The organization I work for, COSEE-OS (or, Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence – Ocean Systems) is hosting a webinar series at the end of this month. Guess what we’re talking about?

Yes, that’s right: marine debris!! Here are two reasons why you might consider signing up:

  • This webinar will feature three prominent research scientists doing work in this field right now – they’re looking at the microscopic life making a home on marine microplastics. They’re using computer models to predict trajectories of debris in the ocean and they’re telling stories about debris jettisoned out to see after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) in Japan.
  • Marine debris vs. plastic pollution: this is the constant debate. Which term is “right”? As it turns out, both are…but don’t let me try to convince you. Join in the webinar fun and find out for yourselves.

In short, this is your chance to hear from the scientists themselves about this issue and what marine debris is doing to our oceans.

Click here to read all about it and sign up! Hope to “see” you there. :)

Marine Debris Webinar Announcement

The Universe Is a Funny Thing

I started this blog after realizing that what I was really interested in was learning more about plastic pollution, and sharing that knowledge with whoever wanted to read it.

The reason I got interested in plastic pollution was because I decided to give up a summer in between sophomore and junior year to take part in an 8-week program devoted to studies in oceanography, nautical science, and maritime history. We were 27 students from across the country coming together to learn more about the ocean. We all became friends in those 8 weeks, which I guess happens when you’re all packed into a 130′ ship for a month!

So it wasn’t just the plastic at sea that got me thinking more about our waste. It was that my other 26 classmates also got upset and annoyed by the floating debris. We were all disgusted after finding plastic lodged in the throat of a mahi mahi. These friendships and this shared experience was all part of the catalyst.

These days, I don’t blog as much, for one reason or another. I have posts queued up, then forget. Sometimes, I lose track of why I’m even bothering. Usually though, there’s this moment of “OH, RIGHT!” when I remember why I started it in the first place. That trip, those people, that experience.

That moment happened again today, but under surreal and tragic circumstances. One of my fellow S-218ers was killed last night as she crossed a street in Southern California. A drunk driver was the reason. Random, so all-of-a-sudden, so confusing. As I’ve been trying to work this out, one idea has remained constant: impermanence. Despite our every intention, we are only here for so long and sometimes, something awful happens and we’re here for even less time. So for all those times we say, “I’ll blog later” or “Eh, I’ll call that friend this weekend when I have more time”…why not do it now? What’s stopping us from doing the things we want to do, right now?

In yoga (and as it turns out, in life too) we talk about the “now” a lot. Be here, be present, now. This incident, while tragic and totally not fair, was a reminder to stay in this moment and to not look too far into the future. If I want to post something on here, I do it now. No more waiting. Why wait?

Garbage, Garbage, Garbage

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

I’ll be honest and admit that before today, I didn’t know who Pete Seeger was*. Sure, I’d probably heard his tunes in the background of various TV shows (Weeds, anyone?) but I never knew that he was so forward thinking and all about big issues like women’s rights, civil rights, and…yep, environmental stewardship. Folk singers, they’re the coolest. I’m only sad that I came around to him too late. Bummer…

So why mention him on a blog devoted to all things plastic pollution? Well this harkens back to my Bill Nye post about garbage and realizing yet again that people have been talking about this issue for a long time. In 1996, Seeger released a song entitled “Garbage” and there’s a verse in it that goes like this:

In Mister Thompson’s factory, they’re making plastic Christmas trees
Complete with silver tinsel and a geodesic stand
The plastic’s mixed in giant vats from some conglomeration
That’s been piped from deep within the earth or strip-mined from the land.
And if you question anything, they say, “Why, don’t you see?
It’s absolutely needed for the economy,”
(source: Lyrics On Demand)

Hearing this song was like a shock to my brain: plastic pollution, pollution in general is such a critical issue! When it comes to pollution, I think people often get bogged down in the details and the nitty-gritty of “Well, this issue is too big and there are too many moving parts so why bother?”

Why bother? Because it keeps happening. People are still writing songs about garbage. Haven’t we learned yet? We tend to write off plastic pollution in favor of larger, “hot topics” like oil exploitation and climate change but the reality is that all of them are connected. We suck petroleum products from the ground, turn them into single-use items and plastic Christmas trees because “it’s absolutely needed for the economy” and in the process pollute our homes, our air, and our water.

I like that these songs exist, because they reinvigorate my excitement about this issue and are good tools to help raise awareness but it would be so awesome if the idea of “garbage” as the focal point for a song became a true thing of the past.

*Many thanks to my Mom for pointing me in the direction of this cool cat! :)

Open Letter to Pilot Pen Corp.

Dear Pilot,

You tell me to “simply write” and so, I proceed. As someone who is environmentally minded and very much into “eco-friendly” products, I really want to believe your “Bottle 2 Pen” campaign is a step in the right direction, but after pondering it a bit more, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s straight greenwashing, thinly veiled.

Just another case of good ole greenwashin'.

Just another case of good ole greenwashin’.

A friend of mine first gave me a “B2P” pen a few years ago, back when the product was still fairly new. At that time, the marketing tactic was something along the lines of “Buy the pen, save the shell, then buy refills!” I was all about it; while I don’t love plastic, having a reusable pen sounded perfect. I’d save money by only buying refills and have a pen that lasted longer than regular old Bics. “Awesome!”, I thought.

Flash-forward to the present day and I find myself kind of shocked and appalled at the evolution of the “B2P” line. What bothers me is not the fact that I can’t even buy the refills at Staples anymore and instead have to order them online (I love online shopping!) but that the marketing campaign surrounding the “B2P” pens has completely done away with promoting the fact that the pens are refillable. Yes, yes, when you go to the B2P website, there are the pens, listed as refillable…but where are the refills? Why do I have to go to a completely different website to get the refills? Why isn’t the refill something that’s being highlighted on the homepage? Instead of creating awkward bottle cartoons that only children can identify with, why not advertise to those that might actually find the refills useful?

In my eyes, this whole campaign is a missed opportunity. It’s great that these pens are made from recycled bottles but if every person using these pens just throws them away when the ink is gone, only to replace it with another 94% recycled-content pen…is that really achieving anything? Or is it just another product, competing for attention in the pen aisle and wasting resources along the way?


A disappointed former Pilot Pen user

Ban the Foam, Maine Edition

What happens when you eat ice cream too late in the evening? Well…blogging happens. This post is just shy of a month overdue, so I guess it was high-time for a sugar-fueled session. Here we go…

Recently, I joined up with the Surfrider Foundation, but more specifically, the Maine Chapter. Surfrider has many campaigns aimed at protecting one of nature’s best playgrounds (the ocean) but the one I most closely identify with is their Rise Above Plastics (RAP) campaign. It’s through this that a lot of bag bans and ordinances surrounding legislation targeted at reducing single-use plastics happen. For anyone who follows these bans across the country, you might recall seeing blips from the state of Maine, as we attempt to ban EPS. What’s EPS? In simple terms: Expanded Polystyrene. The ban that the city of Portland, Maine is considering taking up aims to ban only EPS foam food packaging. Remember that time you got Thai takeout and it came swaddled in squeaky white clam shells? Yeah, that stuff. It’s an ugly pice of litter, it gets into our oceans and wrecks havoc on the marine environment. For those that read my “Photo Seen Round the World” post, you might have noticed a small piece of styrofoam amongst all the contents on that tray…even on Midway Atoll, we find EPS. Problem? You betcha.

And so it was that on September 16, the City Council of Portland, Maine heard public comment on this proposed ordinance. I, along with fellow Surfrider members, attended the meeting to lend our voice in favor of the ban. This was my first foray into the world of politics and public hearings and what I found that evening sort of surprised me. I was told two things before the meeting: 1) there would be lots of lobbyists there, doing a lot of pandering and 2) despite that, most of the council seemed to be in favor of the ban and it was probably going to pass.

Thinking that this was going to be a cake walk, I crafted my 3-minute public statement to the council with Midway on my mind. I talked about how EPS is an outdated packaging material and that recycling it is a futile effort. I shared my Midway story and told the Council members about the albatross being affected by our trash in the middle of nowhere. It was a very nice bit of writing…but it didn’t really resonate with any of the council members. Maybe I spoke too soon, allowing too many lobbyists to speak after me, but mostly, I think what spoke very loudly that night were two things: money and economics.

Herein lies the lesson, and the rub. First, the rub: I am, first and foremost, all about the environment. This is the reason I joined up with Surfrider in the first place and what I focus on in my anti-plastic pollution advocacy. However, there is a large percentage of the population that does not think this way, and this is what I learned that night at the hearing. People want to know how things will affect them, their business, and the economy…back to money and economics. The message driven home, loud and clear, was that if you really want to get a council-member’s attention, you have to mention those things. Of course, we don’t need to all turn into smooth-talking lobbyists, no, no, no…but we have to get on the level.

Something I heard repeatedly that night from the lobbyists and small business representatives in the room was that switching from EPS to alternative packaging would be too expensive. And yet, only one person who testified in favor of the ban gave any evidence that alternative, cost-effective packaging even existed. This is the problem! The small businesses who oppose this ban don’t want it to happen because they maybe aren’t aware of the alternatives, and have been told by industry lobbyists that switching would be disastrous for business. We can talk about the impacts of EPS on the environment until we’re blue in the face, but until we give this group actual alternatives and hard numbers as evidence, we might as well be shouting into the breeze.

Lobbyists are really good at convincing pretty much anyone that their product is just fine and all we need are more recycling programs. They are smooth talkers and when they outnumber those in favor of any legislation that would ban their product, their voice is suddenly the loudest and most heard. What happens then is that a group of council members who are no longer sure an EPS ban is what the City of Portland needs sends the legislation back to committee for further review…at least, this was the case in Portland, that night.

So as advocates of a plastic-free lifestyle, what do we do? We all care about the environment and the well-being of ourselves and future generations and we shouldn’t have to sacrifice that message. What if we crafted our messages in a way that addressed all of these things? After the hearing last month, it became clear to me that as advocates, we can do a better job. It’s not enough to give a statement to the city council on why we think a ban is necessary. We need to be talking to those opposed and figure out how to solve these issues. Only when we take that next step can change really happen.

Surfrider Foundation Maine Chapter

One Year

Hi readers,

While I have some fun updates and posts in the works (among others: banning expanded polystyrene foam food packaging in Portland, Maine, say what?!) I have to take a second, step back and realize that holy cow…it’s been a year. A year since, um…what?

Today, September 27, marks the day I left Midway Atoll, ending my 4 month stay on that incredible set of islands. I hit a turning point there, where I truly came to realize what it means to have an impact on something. My volunteer experience only cemented in my mind the idea that this is what I to do: see the problem, figure out how it’s happening, then tell the world. OK, so maybe I haven’t gotten to world-status yet, but I’m working on it. ;)

In any case, while today marks a bittersweet day, Maine is pulling out all the stops to ensure that I don’t forget that it’s these New England states I missed so much last year, while in the Pacific. Here’s to more fun adventures! :)

Morning sunlight captured in fall foliage.

Morning sunlight captured in fall foliage.

Lessons Learned

OK, readers, I’m back to it. That plastic thing: walking, talking, doing the plastic-free lifestyle. There have been some bumps in the road and a few detours in the past few months but no worries! Here we are, mid-August and things are great. So let’s dive in!

Let’s talk about teaching. No, let’s not talk about teaching. How about communicating? Yeah, let’s go with that. Communicating plastic pollution to an audience. Up until a few months ago, I thought I pretty much had it nailed: figure out your audience, tailor your presentation, and boom! Done. Well, I had an experience back in April that completely changed my thought process about how we communicate and talk about this huge, massive issue of plastic.

The audience: preschoolers. The ones who can’t quite read and aren’t totally sure where Hawaii is on a map. The ones that will be so totally focused for a solid five minutes and then, all of a sudden, will literally run into another room, on to the next adventure. After spending just an hour with a small group of these little kiddos, I learned a few things:

Introducing the kiddos to plastic pollution!

Introducing the kiddos to plastic pollution!

1) I have the utmost respect for anyone who, as their career, works with this age group. OK, if we’re being honest here, I have miles of respect for any and ALL teachers…you are truly amazing.

2) The name of the game is quick! Fast! Go, go, go! These kids love doing things, offering suggestions, looking at pictures. They don’t like to be talked at. They love being engaged and included and feeling like they’re offering something useful. In this respect, plastic pollution actually ends up being kind of fun to talk about, because they absolutely love looking at photos and talking about “trash” (their word of choice for plastic pollution).

Where am I going with all of this? This was a very cool learning experience for me, and I think it’s one that more of us could use. Interacting with and teaching a group of small children is both a frustrating and completely humbling experience. It makes you realize that, “Oh wait, this is the next generation. It’s these guys that will be cleaning up our mess and figuring out how to make this world livable.” So it would behoove us to let them know what’s up…on their terms. I’m not saying we should all drop everything and go talk to some pre-Kers, but if the opportunity presents itself…heck yeah, go for it!

When I can watch a 5 year-old finally make the connection between the plastic she’s holding in her hand and the picture of the dead Laysan Albatross fledgling, I know that something is working and that these kids will be OK. Don’t underestimate the power of the little ones. :)

A HUGE thank you must go out to Great Expectations: For Early Learners. Thank you for inviting me into your classroom and for giving me such a wonderful experience!