In Our Hands

In Our Hands was created with plastic debris found on beaches in North County San Diego.

For centuries, hands have been used as symbols of strength, healing, and protection. In Our Hands, created with plastic debris found on beaches in North County San Diego, will not bring good fortune to anyone; however, the toy hand clappers filled with nurdles* do symbolize the power we hold in our hands to fight for solutions to the plastic pollution crisis and the collective strength we must use to overcome systemic environmental racism.

From extraction and manufacturing to distribution and disposal, plastic has harmful effects throughout its lifecycle, and communities of color are the most severely impacted because fracking facilities, industrial plants, and waste incinerators are often located in fence-line zones.

One example of a community that has been irreparably harmed is in Tennessee where Formosa Plastics Group plans to begin construction on a $9.4 billion facility that will be one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the United States. When complete, The Sunshine Project will be about 80 football fields in size and will double the toxic pollutants emitted in a section of St. James Parish that has been referred to as Cancer Alley since the 1980s. Over time, the area has also come to be known as Death Alley, and it has most recently been dubbed Coronavirus Alley because the majority Black residents are suffering from a COVID-19 death rate that is five times higher than the national average.

To add insult to injury, Formosa went to court in an attempt to block the public from visiting a slave burial site located on The Sunshine Project property. Formosa appealed the first ruling, but residents eventually prevailed and were allowed to hold a Juneteenth prayer ceremony on the ground where their ancestors are buried.

Nelson Mandela said “It’s in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it,” and everyone can have a hand in stopping this human and planetary catastrophe by reducing dependence on single-use items which account for 50% of all plastics produced. We can refuse plastic bags, take-out containers, take-away coffee cups, utensils, stirrers and straws, polystyrene cups and clamshells, single-use water bottles, and unnecessary plastic packaging.

Most importantly, we must hold the petrochemical industry and all plastic producers to account, and we must insist that leaders at every level pass and enforce legislation to protect people and planet.

(*Nurdles are lentil-sized preproduction plastic pellets used to make almost all plastic products. They easily escape during manufacturing and transportation and an estimated 250,000 tons of them enter the world’s oceans annually. Formosa recently settled a $50,000,000 lawsuit for illegally dumping billions of nurdles into the Gulf of Mexico. In June, activists fighting The Sunshine Project were arrested on felony terrorizing charges for leaving a box of nurdles at the home of an oil and gas industry lobbyist.)

Learn more — Stop Formosa

Read NAACP’s — Fumes Across the Fence-line

Support — The Federal Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act

Support — California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act

Participate — Plastic Free July

Watch — The Environment Subcommittee Briefing: Plastic Production, Pollution, and Waste in the Time of Covid-19

Watch The Urgent Need to #StopFomosa below:

 

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Endangered

May 15th was Endangered Species Day, which was established 15 years ago to raise awareness about the living things that are most at risk. In the United States, over 1,300 plants, crustaceans, insects, reptiles, mammals, and others are listed as endangered. While many people think of deer as being quite common, several species are actually threatened with extinction. Unfortunately, the cervidae that I create with unmodified marine plastics found on San Diego County beaches, will exist forever in some form.

Un-endangered deer made with unaltered marine plastic found on beaches in San Diego County.

One deer species that is on the endangered species list is the Key deer. Key deer are named for the Florida Keys where they live—and swim between islands. They have rebounded from a low of 25 in the 1950s to a population estimated to be fewer than 1,000 today.

This recovery is in part due to the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge, but threats still remain, including habitat loss and climate change. In addition, Key deer, also known as “toy deer,” are small (between 24-32 inches tall), and visitors to the area are prone to feeding them, which makes them less afraid of humans and more vulnerable to harm.

There are common sense things we can do to protect Key deer and all wild animals, such as not feeding them, and even during the pandemic, we can also take action to ensure that deer made with marine plastic eventually do become extinct.

  • Use bar soap, instead of liquid soap
  • Purchase hand sanitizer for refills from a local distillery
  • Refuse plastic cutlery and other unecessary single-use plastic items when ordering take-out and/or when using restaurant delivery services
  • Sign up for a CSA produce box program through a local farm and/or shop for produce at a farmers market
  • Put groceries back in the cart after paying, and load them into your own reusable bags at the car

Please leave a reply with your suggestions for reducing single-use plastics while staying safe and healthy during the Covid-19 crisis.

Use bar soap instead of liquid soap.

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Litter in the Time of Coronavirus

Some of the gloves and masks found in and around downtown Vista between April 14 and May 1.

Most of the beaches in San Diego County closed at the beginning of April, and instead of my walks at the coast, I began venturing through my neighborhood to the small Main Street area of town. Every time I go out, I see gloves and masks that have been abandoned in parking lots, tossed on sidewalks, or jettisoned in gutters—and I am not alone. 

People in cities across the country and around the world are witnessing the same thing. I understand that some of the items could have been dropped accidentally, but even if that’s the case, the carelessness is disheartening. As litter, the discards are disgusting. They not only create blight, they harm the environment, and when you consider that the gloves and masks could be vectors for COVID-19, it’s downright frightening.

Map of gloves found on my walking route.

On May 1st, face coverings became mandatory in San Diego County when “in public and within 6′ of someone that is not a household member.” Thankfully, most people had already been wearing fabric masks that can be washed and reused indefinitely, which helps keep others safe while reducing the waste caused by single-use PPE.

On the other hand, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend gloves for the general public at all, citing that they give people a false sense of security and “failing to change them often is the same thing as failing to wash your hands.” People who wear latex gloves make the mistake of leaving them on for extended periods of time and end up touching lots of things, which can spread the virus. Sadly, underpaid sanitation workers, grocery store employees, and gas station attendants are most likely the ones who will have to pick up these potential biohazards.

81 Gloves and Masks

In addition, littered masks and gloves that go unnoticed can become environmental hazards. In fact, I frequently found gloves at the beach prior to the coronavirus crisis, and I am quite sure that it won’t be too long before even more start washing up. Out of respect for our essential workers, and for the sake of the natural environment, single-use masks and gloves must be discarded appropriately. Ultimately, we can all help keep the unsung heroes in our communities out of harms way, while also protecting our oceans and sea life. 

For more about medical waste found on the beach, read my post entitled “Yuck.”

UPDATE: As of June 12th, I have found 348 gloves and masks on my daily walks around town. Over time, the number of gloves has decreased while masks have increased. I believe that this is due to San Diego County’s mask mandate. In addition, people have become more aware of the fact that COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets and is not easily spread through touching surfaces. In fact, the CDC states that the “transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces has not been documented.” However, recent research indicates that masks can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19. Please consider reusable fabric masks, but no matter which type you choose, please handle them carefully and dispose of them properly. 

Please read The Glove Challenge in The New Yorker to learn what others have been doing about the glove scourge, and take a look at What’s Next for Earth: Quarantine Discoveries to check out inspiring works of art created during the pandemic.

256 Gloves and Masks
A map of my meanderings.
321 Gloves and Masks (graphed from April 14 to June 7)
An Animation

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Drowning in Plastic

I was humbled to be featured on the Beautiful-We website, which highlights people who are having a positive impact. For Drowning in Plastic, photographer Margit Boyesen surrounded me in blue plastic debris that I have collected while cleaning North County San Diego beaches. Please follow Beautiful-We to be inspired by others who are striving to make the world a better place.

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Break Down

Plastics break down into smaller and smaller bits until they become microscopic, but they never completely degrade. In other words, petroleum-based plastics never go away. The term “break down” can be applied not only to plastics but to the coronavirus crisis as well. How can we leverage the break down in life as we knew it to revitalize systems while putting people and planet first—and how can we ensure that the lessons learned stay with us forever?

(The broken down pieces of plastic used to make Break Down were all found on North County San Diego beaches.)

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Winter Solstice Snowflakes

Even though remote mountain tops appear pristine in scenic photos, microplastics have been found in snow samples taken from the Sierra Nevada, the Alps, and the Pyrenees—and 90% of samples collected in the Rockies contained microplastics.

There are things we can do to help alleviate the plastic pollution crisis. We can reduce our use of single-use plastic items, and we can rethink polyester clothing, which sloughs off microfibers when washed. Microfibers are actually one of the most ubiquitous micro-plastics found in snow and water samples taken around the world.

To watch an interesting video and to learn about a citizen science snow sampling project being developed by Columbia University, visit The Weather Network.

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Juul Caps

When I recently started finding these caps on the beach, I thought that they were from USB drives. However, a recent headline about the life-threatening consequences of vaping made me realize that they are caps for Juul e-cigarette products.

In addition to adding to the plastic pollution problem, e-cigarette companies like Juul are marketing to youth. Nicotine use by teens had been on the decline until the recent increase in vaping, which can lead to addiction, behavioral changes, and health problems. In fact, on August 27, the FDA released a statement about their current investigation of 215 cases of severe respiratory distress and pulmonary illness attributed to e-cigarette use.

To stop this epidemic, regulations need to be put into place, and San Francisco, home of the Juul Labs company, has done just that. It is now illegal “to sell nicotine vaporizer products in stores or for online retailers to ship the goods to San Francisco addresses.” In Beverly Hills, the City Council approved an ordinance that will “prohibit the sale of nicotine-products, including cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes” beginning on Jan. 1, 2021.

Local ordinances are helpful, but in order to fully protect our children and our environment, California’s SB424 needs to be passed. If enacted, it will “ban filtered cigarettes, disposable plastic holders and mouthpieces, and single-use electronic cigarettes. It also calls for manufacturers to take back any non-recyclable parts of reusable e-cigarettes.”

If you are a California resident and want to support SB424, please visit Surfrider’s post that includes a quick and easy way to send a message to your elected official.

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Be Disposable Free

cutlery

Plastic cutlery is often among the top ten items found during shoreline cleanups, and I have certainly collected my fair share while walking at the beach.

Plastic knives, forks, and spoons are not recyclable in most waste systems, because they are made from a variety of types of plastic resins, and the odd shapes make them difficult for recyclers to bale. Plastic cutlery can also jam sorting machines, and they are a common contaminant in most recycling systems.

Compostable utensils are also problematic, because in most cases, they can only be composted in a commercial composting facility, and very few of those exist in the US. The best choice is reusable cutlery.

Green Oceanside has started a Be Disposable-Free campaign, and volunteers are needed to help raise awareness about the harmful effects of single-use items, including utensils. If you are in San Diego County and are interested in supporting the effort in Oceanside, please contact ShoreSweep.

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The Butterfly Effect

butterfliesThe butterfly effect theory comes from meteorologist Edward Lorenz and the idea that the development of a tornado can be “influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.” In other words, small fluctuations or changes can have a dramatic impact somewhere else at a later time. Even though it can feel like our individual actions will not make a big enough difference quickly enough, everything we do matters, and our collective efforts will have a significant positive impact in our communities and around the world.

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Sea Turtle

IMG_4989More than half of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic, and sadly, they are especially susceptible to its harmful effects.

According to Sea Turtle Conservancy, their anatomy prohibits the regurgitation of debris, and the accumulation of plastic in their stomachs not only disrupts digestion, it can lead to “bubble butt syndrome.“ One way this occurs is when the decomposition of debris in a sea turtle’s stomach causes the development of an air pocket of trapped gas. The trapped gas can inhibit the animal’s ability to dive, and a sea turtle that is unable to dive will not be able to thrive.

The tiny bits filling up this toy turtle are microplastics, which are plastics that are less than 5mm. The colorful pieces are the result of the photo-degradation of larger plastics, which fragment into smaller and smaller toxic bits. The opaque rounded pellets are nurdles, which are “primary source microplastics.” In other words, they were originally produced to be 5mm or smaller. Nurdles are preproduction plastics used to make other plastic products. They are often spilled during manufacturing and transportation, and when they enter waterways, they can be swept out to sea. Watch the short animated TED-Ed video called Nurdles Quest for Domination for more information.

 

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