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Overwhelmed And Inspired, The East Coast Is Awash In Plastic

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We limped into Baltimore, riding from Wilmington, Delaware just a few days ago.  After some difficult navigation on gravel roads, I’d broken three spokes and had to ride on a wobbly wheel for twenty miles. Riding a bike across a country gives one a new perspective on plastic pollution, one that overwhelms the senses and makes you feel like no matter how hard you work, you’re going backwards– the trash on the east coast is mindboggling, third worldly. Data from roadside cleanups finds close to 6,800 pieces of litter per mile, and there are over four million miles of roadway in the United States. That’s a lot of garbage–firsthand, we’ve seen just staggering amounts of pollution between New Haven, CT and Washington, DC where we are now.

When you consider the topography, you realize one simple fact– this litter is destined for the sea when it rains. The scale of the pollution is unreal.

This was readily apparent in Baltimore. Our friends at Blue Water Baltimore put us up in their office, which is nestled in the fifth most dangerous neighborhood in America for violent crime. And outside, trash was everywhere. As night set in we watched a torrential downpour, witnessing newly formed rivers of garbage riding the currents, heading straight into the sewer, which then comes out untreated from outfall pipes into Baltimore watersheds. Blue Water works to educate folks that trash on the street doesn’t hit a filter on its way to the river, but most people don’t understand this simple fact.

Well, the truth was apparent at our cleanup the next day on the Herring Run Watershed.

The previous night this river had flooded from the storm. When it receded, that which didn’t get swept downriver to the Chesapeake Bay littered the trees some five feet off the ground. The seen was unimaginable, nature had become a synthetic, transmogrified version of itself. There, amongst the shrubs, sand and rock was a hanging garden of plastic bags, styrofoam, straws, beverage bottles, plastic labels– you name it. But it was the ubiquitous plastic bag that dominated, lining the flora like some sick ornament, after being shred by the force of rushing water. And if anyone ever asks the question about the difference between paper and plastic bags, I will say this– you don’t find thousands and thousands of paper bags in trees along a quarter of a mile of river anywhere in the world.

Sometimes cleanups are overwhelming (this one actually made my guts churn) and what you realize is that even though you have 50 volunteers on a quarter mile stretch of riverbed, you’re just barely making a dent at actually cleaning it up. Yes, 5 Gyres advocates for cleanups, but stopping the pollution at the source is where the solution must lie. Whether that’s bottle deposits, bag bans or fees, we’ve got to do something. Cleanup is part of the picture, but it’s ultimately a small part. Eliminating waste before it can become waste is the key– and yes, education and outreach helps, but we believe as a movement that as Americans we have a right to clean water. We even have a federal law that says so. Tomorrow we’ll take a boat ride to the Anacosta watershed, to see the positive effect of the DC bag fee.

As an activist, I’m sometimes criticized for my adamant tone about this issue. Yes, we all need to work together. Yes, we have to engage industry, but what I’m not willing to do is put a band-aid on a mortal wound, or listen to industry tell us that we will recycle our way out of this problem (plastic bags, 4.3% in 2010). We won’t. Why? Because industry doesn’t pay for recycling, they don’t capture the cost of mitigating their product’s effect on the environment once it’s unleashed into the world. No, they pass the buck with feel good campaigns that don’t work. If these campaigns were effective, the situation would be getting better, and unequivocally, it’s not. It makes me sick. And it’s why I do what I do.

After our presentation at the National Aquarium, I had dinner with Julie Lawson from Trash Free Maryland (Julie is a total rockstar and a major mentor of mine), and Lauren Poor from Blue Water Baltimore. We talked about how dirty Baltimore is. We talked about how to reach the masses. We talked about barriers. We talked about socio-economic data that suggests that people in poorer communities don’t consider ‘the commons’ as part of their environment– their cars, gardens and homes are clean, but the trash in the world all around isn’t their’s. It’s a symptom of a community in crisis.

It’s hard for me to get my head around how we can clean this up, and keep it clean. But we have to try. And there are signs of light. Blue Water Baltimore started a campaign to mark stormdrains with a simple message, “Trash in the street, pollutes what we eat.” This sentiment is particularly poignant, as parents, rich or poor, don’t like feeding their children toxic fish and seafood. And another sign of progress: I interviewed a kid who came down the cleanup named Jerome (video forthcoming) who had this to say, “They say Baltimore is the dirtiest city in America, and I don’t like it, it’s not fair, people need to pick up after themselves and stop throwing trash in the street.” We’ve got an incredibly long way to go to start getting ahead of this problem, but thanks to people like Jerome, Lauren and Julie, we’ll get there. Why? Because we have no other choice if we in fact value nature, as nature is intended to be.  But the solutions starts with you and me. The solution starts with you getting involved in your community, talking to your elected officials and making time to be part of the solution. Today, do just one thing, take our challenge– get to know the garbage in your street. You will learn heaps about the problem in just five minutes.

And remember, if this woman can make the time to Be The Sea Change she wants to see for her child, so do you.

One Response

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