My daughter and her fiancé have brought a message back from Sri Lanka, where they have been living and working: The trash problem is out-of-control. The litter of the world reaches faraway beaches, and chokes the oceans in between. My daughter describes waves of plastic refuse in the sea, some of which, as you may know, will never biodegrade. Other plastics actually do break down more quickly than once was thought, but that breakdown can disperse harmful chemicals in its wake. Consequently, the ocean, according to one oceanographer, has become a kind of “plastic soup.”
A feeling of helplessness, or even despair, can set in when we become educated in the ways that human consumerism threatens the earth with its waste and clutter. The crisis seems insurmountable, far beyond our help or control. What can one person do, after all, in the face of global devastation?
There are things.
For starters, the old “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra is as timely as ever. Whenever we conserve rather than consume, we make a habit of mindfulness of our own contribution to the health or the destruction of the planet. It’s just that many of us do not have any interest in considering the impact of our own wasteful ways.
Thankfully, however, we can count on young people to inspire us with their confident, can-do attitude. “After all the trash we saw overseas, we’ve stopped using plastic straws,” my daughter told me. “We just order drinks without straws.”
And now I do, too. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.
Seriously, do we need all those straws? Once we become adults, we are actually able to drink anything we choose without the use of a straw, and without spilling anything down our shirtfronts. We grown-ups have mastered the art of matching cup to lips. Small children may need a straw. Old folks may need a straw. My cousin who just had his jaw wired shut due to an accident definitely, if temporarily, needs a straw. But many of us do not. Just as we Californians have overcome the terrible burden of having to bring our reusable bags into the grocery store instead of relying on those now-outlawed, disposable plastic bags, we can live normal lives without plastic straws.
And there are alternatives. Reusable cups, for example, come with reusable straws, which one can wash rather than discard: a small step.
The coffee mega-corp Starbucks is designing a recyclable lid with a spout that would eliminate the need for a straw. Another small step.
Then there’s AB 1884, a bill that is making its way through the California State Legislature. Dubbed the "Straws on Request Bill," it would require restaurants to provide patrons with straws only on request, rather than automatically. The bill has passed the Assembly and is now before the Senate. It’s a small step that has been widely ridiculed, but so has many a good start.
These changes might make only very small differences. Along with others, however, their impact could be an overall reduction in plastic trash. More importantly, when we put ourselves into the mindset of believing we can make a difference, magic happens. This contradicts people like the grumpy guy recently overheard at the soda dispensary in a fast-food joint: “Oh, right, I guess straws are evil now.” No, sir, they are not. But perhaps your outlook on life could use some work.
Because the straw is not really the issue. It’s the mindset of selfishness. Preserving our communal home is not, or should not be, a political matter. We aren’t monsters. There are no sides to survival. There is no arguing about whether or not we want our grandchildren to live and flourish in a healthy environment. Or is there? Oh, dear: Maybe we are monsters. It’s just hard to imagine that anyone would deliberately pollute the world that future generations hope to inhabit. I prefer to think that people are oblivious rather than malevolent. Plus, it’s easier to change thoughtless behavior than meanness.
Perhaps the lowly straw can be a catalyst, or at least a teaching tool. Perhaps awareness of a small thing like using and throwing away a plastic straw can bring us together in what the environmentalist Paula Gonzalez called “ecological kinship," wherein we acknowledge that we are all afloat in the same boat called Planet Earth. We may never visit Sri Lanka, for example, but the choices we make here can help Sri Lankans. When we open our arms to others, our circle of life is as wide as the globe. The greater, hidden lesson: When we are kin, we earthlings are responsible for each other.