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  • Writer's picturePearl

Ocean Soup

Years ago, I took my young son on a whale watching trip in Cape Cod. The behemoths were all around, close and far. We could see their exhales over the water and their fluke print on the surface. The truly mind-blowing moment was the teamwork used to make a bubble net that trapped the plankton, krill, and small fish so three could have a meal. First to the surface were tiny bubbles. Following were the open baleen filled maws of the creatures slowly raising beyond the boarder of their water world, then sinking back down. After this otherworldly experience my little son promptly fell asleep for the trip back to shore.

These baleen whales are magnificent creatures unlike anything we see on land or in the air. They swim in groups and solo through the oceans taking in 5,000 gallons (think mid-sized swimming pool) of water to their bodies then, with their tongues, push it out through the baleen strainers that come down into their mouths. What else besides food have these creatures found in the water they strain? These days, they also ingest plastic.

Plastic was invented in the early 1900’s from natural polymers as a flexible, sturdy, easily shaped base product to form into useful items. During WWII plastic innovations abounded and were closely kept secrets of the main powers of the era. The various chemical based plastics were light, strong and replace the naturally occurring degradable rubber, zinc, and silk used for insulation, parachutes, ropes, and shock absorption. The light weight, durable, and malleable polymers made it into every part of our lives as post-WWII rebuilding and prosperity expanded human consumption and development. Plastic increased the ability to create beyond what nature could supply.

Only ten years later used and discarded plastic was observed as a persistent feature in the environment. It didn’t disappear back into the earth because it wasn’t from nature. In the 1950’s we launched a global scale chemistry experiment that has been well monitored and recorded. Humans and animal alike began to consume plastics as they were now part of the greater environment. The earliest recoded observation of a whale with plastic in its stomach was from 1971, only twenty years after making it to market. This first observation of ingested plastic was a large sheet. Since 2012 whale deaths due to consumption of plastic have become almost common place. Regularly they are found with 40-100 lbs of large sheets, fishing nets, nurdles, and plastic bags disrupting their digestion. There are organizations and governments supporting the removal; ocean plastics are being studied for their other, less obvious impacts on humans, animals, and the global processes.

I look around my house and there’s plastic everywhere. From the insulation on the lamp cord to the rug on the floor. The toys and the paint my kids use. There are awesome sequins on their clothes and the waterproof shoes are all plastic. When we order something that comes in the mail, more plastic that only spends a moment in my life. I’m surrounded by plastic and it will be here forever. Now what do I do, even surrounded by plastic?

Well I slow down before I buy something and ask questions. Can I bundle this with other purchases, so they come in one box? Is this an impulse or a comfort buy? Normally, I would encourage buying locally, but we’re living through a global pandemic where going to a store for more than the necessities is a choice my family and many others aren’t making. When I go to the store I am still bringing my reusable bags, they are insulated with plastic; I’ve had them for years now and they hold up well with a bit of care. My produce goes directly into the cotton bags without the thin plastic one. I give my friends things in reusable grocery bags instead of the plastic ones—I live in NY State and there is a ban on single use plastic bags. I wash these bags when they are dirty, so even the dirt dusted carrots from the garden get put into them. I talk to my little kids, 7&4, about what toys they want and buy things they will play with for years—creative and multi-use—and hand down the old toys and books to friends, family, and good will. They are never bored, and they sure do have a huge stick collection that they build, play, and invent with. The bathroom is certainly a pain point, it’s so full of plastic, but I don’t want glass to break in there and I haven’t made the switch solid shampoo. My hair is color treated and I buy the big bottles from the salon, I’ve had them for two years and there’s still plenty left. We use other plant-based soaps that are in big bottles for the kids and for bubble baths. When I travel, I fill small silicone containers to take. The face scrub I use has almond shells, not microplastics for the abrasive. For now, I advise slowing down and thinking. Shift from thinking about plastic trash as waste, but as a finite resource and something that we will live with forever. I’m working on more practical recommendations and work arounds and processes for doing more with less—that is up and coming. I think about the whales, they are beautiful, smart, and work in teams to catch food. I think about whales. They live in an ocean full of our plastic and every bit we do to reduce what we create will make a difference.

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