Consumptive Vacation

Why is it that we always seem to assume the worst in people? We plan for a mess and then create more of a mess in the process. I’m speaking this time of the wastefulness of outdoor bars and restaurants. At some point (and I haven’t done a ton of research so can’t point to an exact year or decade) bar owners thought that combining outdoor establishments with alcohol in glass vessels wasn’t a good idea and with good reason, I suppose. Patrons break glass, other patrons step on broken glass, lawsuits abound. Or, people steal the glassware. Or it falls into the ocean/waterway next to the bar. The solution? Make everything plastic. That way, we can throw everything away (easy cleanup), there’s no risk of breakage (no pissed off customers) and if it blows away? It’s not our problem anymore! Right?

At an outdoor bar yesterday, I and my friends gathered for a few drinks. It was situated on a marina (outdoors + water = recipe for plastic haven), but it had a nice, classy vibe so I thought maybe we’d luck out and avoid the plastic. Not so. We were immediately presented with these #5 (polypropylene, e.g. Tupperware) cups, complete with a plastic straw. The interesting thing about these cups was that they were actually designed to be reused (on the bottom of the cup: “Top rack dishwasher safe”)! This seemed pretty cool to me; a halfway solution to the plastic-bar-cup dilemma. “Hey, if we’re going to use plastic, let’s at least wash the cups and reuse ’em!”

Missed opportunity to class a place up and help the environment.
Missed opportunity to class a place up and help the environment.

Naturally, we became curious: did the restaurant intend to use the cups for their designated purpose? After watching a bartender chuck a #1 (PET) cup that had previously held water straight into the trash, I was having second thoughts, but we decided to proceed anyway and flagged the bartender down to ask. To our dismay, it turned out that this place didn’t reuse the cups. In fact, they didn’t even recycle them. Nope, everything got thrown away after one use. GAH!

On a purely monetary level, how is it even cheaper to buy endless sleeves of #5 cups when you could also invest in a set of pint glasses to wash and reuse again and again? In our attempts to avoid disaster, we choose a product that ends up being a disaster further on down the line and in the process, waste so many resources. Plus, we create this system where we assume humans can’t handle something breakable. I realize sometimes we all get a little crazy and thing break, but to just blindly categorize all people drinking as dangerous is unfair and stupid. Give us the benefit of the doubt. Let us make mistakes and break a glass so we know not to do it again. By giving us plastic, you’re letting us continue with our wasteful ways and there is no reprimand.

The worst part? Nobody seems to think this is a big deal. How do we change this perspective? I think the first step might be to hash it out with Skipper’s Dockside Key Largo but there are countless places like this in the world. Any other solutions out there?


Finding a Purpose in Plastic

A Reminder & Solutions.

Dear Readers,

I think I can safely say that this last week is the first since the conference that I have felt as elated, accomplished and generally PSYCHED to talk trash. I am inspired. I had a moment today when I realized that what I’m doing now is exactly what I want to be doing and it was such a great feeling! But I’m getting ahead of myself…

During my time at Seventh Generation, I expanded beyond Quality Assurance, explored other departments and came out of this 9-month internship with much more than I ever expected. As a result, I was able to return to 60 Lake Street on December 5th to present my plastics story to the Seventh Gen employees and their Board of Directors as part of a larger presentation on plastic pollution. It was awesome, and here’s why:

I can talk trash for days…plastic trash, that is. However, I always forget how nervous I tend to be before a presentation, even if I know exactly what I want to say. Well, it turns out that after working at a company whose employees number less than 120, you get to know everyone on some level. I consider myself so lucky for having that opportunity. So when it came time for me to share my stories, I just looked around at all the familiar faces and went for it.

I talked about my experience sailing through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, how that tied into my senior capstone work and then finally, how my capstone led me to 5IMDC. My bit ended with observations and reflections I’ve made about the plastic pollution problem. And of course, I brought accessories! I wanted people to hear what I had to say but also to see and feel what I use to reduce my consumption. Shining stars included: straws from Glass Dharma, bamboo utensils from To-Go Ware, my ChicoBag and Organic Essence lip balm and shea butter. All plastic-free!

5IMDC Poster On Display!

The awesomeness doesn’t end here! What really blew me away was all of the positive feedback I got while we were packing up. The entire board of directors came up and personally thanked me for giving such a great talk. One of them told me I was brave for having sailed across the Pacific at my age. One of my former coworkers pulled me aside afterwards to tell me how the whole presentation made her realize how many plastic straws her daughter was using and how she hadn’t ever thought about it until then. So I grabbed a Glass Dharma straw and told her to give it to her daughter to try out. When I returned home that afternoon, I had an email from another coworker who had been at the presentations and was reminded of finding beach treasure (read: plastic trash) on an island off the coast of Germany as a child – “Probably enough to outfit a household!” she said. I was elated! It was happening, people were thinking about the issue in a new light. The fact that I and the rest of my fellow presenters were able to make a group of already very environmentally aware people think about their plastic consumption was, in my eyes, a huge success.

When people email me about their stories of waste, or when my friends on Facebook, family and coworkers tell me about a start-up company doing something to reduce their plastic footprint or an article they found concerning plastic pollution, it literally makes my day. Because that’s all I want. I don’t want to force people to see this issue and be saddened by it. I want people to be curious and excited and want to learn more. That’s the goal and last week, I achieved it in a big way.

(Oh, and as if the afternoon of plastics presentations wasn’t enough, I was also fortunate enough to display the “Leech” plastic bag kite constructed by Craig Winslow for an art installation in downtown Burlington this past summer: 70 unique plastic shopping bags comprise the exterior while over 1,000 bags are stuffed to give the appearance of a bloated monstrosity. Eye-catching, huh?)


Take-Out Cups: A Meditation on Waste

Readers, I need to blow off some steam, so pardon the following rant. I’m hoping some of you can empathize:

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen what trash does when it gets out of your garbage can and into a part of the world where people rarely are. I’ve seen the waste problem and it cannot be unseen. It’s like I have these glasses on, not the rose colored ones, but a kind that make it so I cannot NOT see and observe waste.

Mahi Mahi - caught with a fragmented plastic grid in its throat.

What is waste? Waste is anything that is not essential, something extra that serves no purpose. Waste is something that is used for 5 minutes and thrown away, yet is made of materials that will far outlive its usefulness.

What am I getting at, exactly? Well, it’s something we all know and most definitely have all used:

The to-go coffee cup.

Is this really necessary?

Yeah, that thing. That small, seemingly innocuous little cup. Nobody thinks about it. They think, “I need coffee. I need tea. I need a venti-soy-no-whip caramel macchiato and I need it now or I will drive this car off the road.” To most people, this cup is just a means of getting them a jolt of caffeine and the thought of throwing this plastic-coated paper cup and plastic lid in the garbage isn’t a big deal. In fact, it’s usually a non-issue. People buy their coffee, they drink said coffee and then maybe it registers somewhere in their subconscious that they have to throw this cup in the garbage. That last part isn’t really a conscious thought though. It’s just what you do when you’re done using a cup…you throw it away. Chain reaction, satisfaction guaranteed, no guilty conscious.

But what if people thought about that cup in a different way? What if people were exposed to what a coffee cup really is? What if their thought process went like this:

“I need coffee. I need tea. I need a venti-soy-no-whip caramel macchiato and I need it now or I will definitely drive this car off a cliff. But wait just a second here. You mean to tell me this coffee cup is coated with plastic? Like…even if I make SURE it finds a home in the nearest garbage can it probably still won’t break down? Because it’s going to a landfill, where nothing breaks down? And what’s that? The lid that I sip my delicious life-blood out of is made of a material that wasn’t designed to break down quickly, in any sort of environment? So what you’re telling me is that this coffee cup is basically going to outlive me…and I only used it for 10 minutes. Uh…what?”

It's plastic...but you can't recycle it! What gives?!

So my goal with this post is to 1) rant a little bit but mostly to 2) meditate on the idea of waste in an item as simple as a coffee cup.

Hopefully people reading this might think, “Wow, that is crazy…” and the next time you get coffee, you’ll think about your coffee cup a little differently. If you already think this way…I raise my cup to you!

Yes, there will be a few who will read this and ten minutes later they’re craving a caramel macchiato and they forget all about this notion of “waste”. They’ll continue to go about their daily lives with no real thought as to what they’re consuming. That’s not really acceptable, but it’s OK…because these are the people I will continue to fight for and try my hardest to educate. Sooner or later, they’ll have to wake up and smell the coffee.

Beautiful, functional options that save us many dollars. 🙂