Overcoming overwhelm one straw at a time

trash piled high on top of a garbage bin

I spent the better part of the weekend immersed in garbage.

The garbage in question was plastic, specifically, the vast quantities of plastic pollution that are turning up everywhere: on beaches, in "far away" landfills,* in swirling aquatic gyres, and yes, even in our bodies. The immersion technique was an all-day event here in Los Angeles, the TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch conference.

And even though 12 hours in a room with 100 people is like Death By Extraversion for a freaky INFJ like me, it really was the better part of my weekend. Better even than being treated to a Houston's burger and a Sunday-afternoon matinée of The Social Network by my bestie, L.A. Jan, and that was pretty damned great. Because while it is always shocking and frequently painful to be woken up, to be given the tools of change so lovingly and thoughtfully and brilliantly is overwhelming in the good way.

The facts are overwhelming in the bad way. A floating island twice the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Babies born with plastic in their blood. Birds dead with plastic in their bellies. As a similarly shell-shocked friend and I joked morbidly during a break in the onslaught, you could count at least one slide in each presentation to send you spiraling down the vortex of "We're f*cked."

We may be. but that's not the point. I mean, a gigantic asteroid could take us all out tomorrow morning, but that doesn't mean we should all act like assholes tonight, right? Okay, false analogy. How about this, friends of change: you will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever get done all of the things you want to do in this lifetime; does that mean you shouldn't try?

Change sucks! Change is awesome!

For most of us, most kinds of change require a delicate balance of incremental application and wholesale commitment. Even when I uncharacteristically changed like THAT, chucking my cigarettes, say, or switching to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet 100% in an afternoon, there was always a trail of trigger events leading up to the change itself, and a long, long haul of re-aligning my thoughts and actions afterward. There's backsliding, too, and setbacks. I fell off the 100%-SCD wagon a little, then a lot, but I learned a little, then a lot, and six years later, I'm back on again.

So perhaps it will be more useful to focus on what you can do. It was definitely the part of the day that I found most inspiring, all the stories of people who woke up, one way or another, to the problem and immediately set themselves to the challenge of becoming the solution. Artist Dianna Cohen morphed into activist Dianna Cohen when the discarded plastic she used to make her art started breaking down, and she started to learn what that meant. Beth Terry, accountant, turned into Beth Terry, agent of change, when she saw a picture of a dead bird filled filled with discarded plastic. Teenager Jordan Howard became leader-of-teens, and aspiring teens, and long-retired teens, Jordan Howard after waking up in a class about sustainability. So many inspiring stories, so little time to time to get moving.

One straw at a time.

I am no hero. My house is filled with plastic, as is my life in general. And this, from someone who (usually) carries an aluminum water bottle and refillable hot cup. I'm a little better than I was, and I have a long way to go. Still, because I know myself and my easily overwhelmed nature, I will start small: no more straws.

I became a huge fan of the bendy straw during my hospitalization back in 2002, when they were the only way (outside of an IV, which is NO fun) to reliably get liquid from a container into my body. During my convalescence, they comforted me, having a bendy straw in my water or juice or smoothie not only helped increase my consumption of liquids, but reminded me in a deep, Proustian way of being cared for by my grandparents as a child. I got hooked, and well after becoming well, the bendy straw remained ubiquitous in my drinking life. If it was 80ºF or under, I used a bendy straw to get it into my gullet. Even though I used the same straw for days weeks, okay, MONTHS, I was still aware that it was a foolish extravagance from an environmental standpoint.**

So effective immediately, I am forgoing my very favorite single-use plastic, the straw, at home, or out and about. Yesterday afternoon, I asked for my iced tea at Houston's without a straw, and as you can see, I've lived to tell the tale. I will bundle up the couple dozen remaining bendy straws and see if I can't donate them to some crafty type, maybe one of the people who make this stuff. Right now, I'm test-driving the reusable glass one that came packed in the swag bags, but should I find myself outside of sipping distance, I will not cave. As one of the speakers pointed out, there are people all over the world who are able to take a drink from a glass WITHOUT A STRAW when they find themselves thirsty.

My head is awash with thoughts about what to do next, and I have several ideas for projects around this that I might like to implement at some point. Fun projects that might help spread the word and make it easier for other slower-adopters like me make the change. "More soon!" as they say.

For now, though, I'll leave you with this short collection of places to start looking at the problem of plastic pollution in a way that will inform and aid without overwhelming. As people who've been down this road before said, the point is not to depress yourself; it's to arm yourself for action.

  • Fake Plastic Fish's Plastic-Free Guide :: A really, really long list of mostly small changes you can make NOW to start reducing your plastic consumption. Some are really easy! Some are not, for now! Beth Terry's excellent site also contains lots of great resources on alternative products, plus inspiring stories and great info.
  • Plastic Pollution Coalition :: Collaborative effort between scientists, businesses, social activists, educators and concerned individuals to protect Earth and her inhabitants by ending plastic pollution. Terrific, deep resources, well-designed and laid out.
  • How to Avoid Bisphenol A :: I'm old, but if you're not, or in charge of young people, you ought to educate yourself about this immediately. As in, don't even worry about the straws and the sporks until you get this toxin out of your life.
  • And of course, for the morbidly curious, more depressing statistics than you can shake a spork at, if that's what gets you moving.

If you have resources, stories or other inspiring bits of something to share, please please please do so in the comments, where other people can find them. THANK YOU.


*As was pointed out often over the course of the day, "away" is always somewhere, and much of the stuff we dump "away" ends up right back in our own backyard.

**I am not sure whether my eco-sponsor, Wayne, was more appalled by my use of plastic straws in general, or my highly unsanitary re-use of the same one over and over. What can I say? Even the compulsively tidy have their area of disgustingness.

Image by woodley wonderworks via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.