Plastic Challenge

Would you ever knowingly swallow plastic? Yet the North Pacific Gyre is swirling with plastic from all over the globe, a garbage patch three times the size of France. Fish and birds ingest it, and so, eventually, do we. Off the Carmel coast the sea floor is white, thick with thousands of golf balls.

These plastic pieces were found in the stomach of a Laysan albatross chick on Midway Island. From an exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

When I was a girl, Aunt Ellen’s blueberry muffins were a special treat. Now blueberries are a year-round staple in my diet, piled on top of yogurt or nibbled mindlessly as a midmorning snack. So healthy, so delicious! But whether organic or conventional, sold in plastic.

My neighbor Dick jokes that if you walk down the street in Santa Cruz, you must be accompanied by a dog on leash, talking on the phone, and/or carrying a cup of coffee; otherwise you risk getting a ticket. Usually the cup in hand is paper with a plastic lid. Of course, you’re probably like me and bring your own cup with you to the coffee shop, but here’s a confession: at work my breakfast is Bob’s Red Mill organic oatmeal in a “convenient on-the-go cup” with plastic film over the top, and lunch is often a prepackaged salad from Trader Joe’s. For years I virtuously recycled those clamshell containers, but a few months ago I learned that, in Santa Cruz anyway, they are not recyclable.

Living in the Netherlands back in the 90s, I got in the habit of taking my own shopping bag to the grocery store, but too often when I order takeout, I forget to say that I don’t need utensils. Serving dinner at the winter homeless shelter last week, we supplemented the VFW’s plates, cups, and forks with paper napkins and plastic knives for forty men. I only volunteered there one night, but it must be the same every night all winter long.

We all know the slogan Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, which probably goes back to the beginning of the environmental movement in the 70s. It’s catchy, practical, good for the planet — and for the soul. In his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis deplores our throwaway culture, and he has proposed adding care for our common home as an eighth work of mercy to the traditional list of seven.

Last year the Church of England encouraged Christians to reduce their plastic use during Lent. Over the years I’ve given up candy, alcohol, Facebook, even chocolate, but plastic? It seemed way too hard. How could I go forty days without acquiring or discarding plastic?

Ash Wednesday is March 6th. Let’s see.