:: 2018 “THIS LAND IS…” WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Microplastics, lepa lepa, bra fish, lonely flip-flops, mottainai, killer mantis, limestone waterfalls, conspicuous consumption, sea cucumbers in Styrofoam, intentional ignorance, pesky cantaloupes, sacrifice areas
Man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
A crown of waves tickled my forehead as I drifted facedown through the lucid water. Tiny fish speckled the current in a ribbon of wayward confetti. To my left, aquamarine stretched quietly into deep blue. To my right, something pink snagged my attention.
“What a weird fish,” I thought as I bobbed over top. I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t identify this strange species. I was new to snorkeling and this trip to Borneo’s Mabul Island, near the legendary Sipadan dive site, had already brought surprises. The fish’s fins, almost the size of small dessert plates, bloomed a bright fuchsia against the sandy bottom. They fluttered like butterfly wings above a small body that remained hidden from view as it foraged among the coral. With a breath, I duck-dove down and managed to get within arm’s reach before it hit me. Realization crept in like a rising tide: The thing was already dead. In an instant, my mystery fish transformed into a bright-pink bra. Its lacy straps had snagged on the reef, sending D cups flapping raucously against the waves. I snorkel-chuckled to myself and had to ascend before inhaling saltwater. Neither a new species nor an exotic find, this was just another piece of trash flung where it didn’t belong. Back under the dim lights of the dive-resort bar, my Bra Fish anecdote was met by giggles and hearty laughs. What surprised me was how my discovery was the one and only time the level of debris clogging the waters around this world-class dive site surfaced in conversation. Likewise, in hours of online research and trip planning, I hadn’t come across a single mention of rubbish among the raving tourist reviews. The plastic pollution on Mabul was impossible to ignore, but no one around me seemed willing to acknowledge there was a problem in diver’s paradise. Yet as I sat surrounded by clinking glasses and contented scuba junkies it was all I could see, like a whale in the room in that corner of the Sulu Sea.
Every piece of plastic you’ve ever bought or used will outlive you.
Mabul and Sipadan lie just an hour’s boat ride off the coast of Sabah, a Malaysian state in northeastern Borneo. Part of the Coral Triangle—a biodiversity epicenter in Southeast Asia where seventy-six percent of the world’s coral species resides—these sister islands harbor some of the richest marine life in the world.1 Sipadan’s Barracuda Point consistently ranks among the world’s top-ten dive sites, often in the top two, and Mabul stuns macro divers with its array of tiny sea creatures.2 Home to nomadic fishing tribes, which still inhabit parts of Mabul, both islands were relatively inconspicuous until legendary aquanaut Jacques Cousteau said of the area in 1989, “I have seen other places like Sipadan, forty-five years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.”3 Ironically, his words launched a tourism wave that threatened to overwhelm the fragile marine environment. After two decades of degradation, the Malaysian government finally classified Sipadan as a marine reserve in 2005, barring all resorts and limiting visitors to a permit-only 120 per day. But it was not a quick fix. Neighboring Mabul soon became the so-called “sacrifice area” used to save Sipadan.2
The island is small enough that you can walk the entire perimeter in less than half an hour. Opulent bungalows sandwich the sloping shantytown roofs of resident fishing tribes. Disembarking on Mabul and crossing the one-hundred-meter dock toward the island felt like walking the plank above a landfill. To the right of the gangway, across the hotel’s private beach, I could see starfish dotting pale sand through water so clear it looked translucent. To my left, on the side of the local village, the same ethereal windowpane of water rippled above a seafloor carpeted with garbage. The shallows played an optical illusion: one blink, then two, it took a few seconds for my mind to readjust to the apocalyptic view. Where a coral reef should have been, relics of discarded human consumption covered the sand completely: disposable water bottles, a lonely flip-flop sole, plastic bottle caps now home to confused hermit crabs, scraps of fishing nets, twisted chip packets, shreds of cloth, wire, splintered PVC pipe and schools of baby fish sheltering among forests of decaying plastic bags.
A local fisherman drifted into view atop his lepa lepa, a lived-in, open-top wooden boat no larger than a two-person canoe. As one of the Bajau Laut seafaring people, often called sea gypsies for their nomadic lives spent almost entirely at sea, his once-bright home bore the saltwater plight of peeling paint. Sitting under a piece of fabric erected on sticks as a small shade cloth, the fisherman readied his morning catch for market. Carefully, he placed a giant mantis shrimp into a scavenged plastic two-liter soft-drink bottle, angling it through a slit cut lengthwise in the bottle’s cylindrical side. While wandering Semporna earlier that day, I’d seen aquariums full of these plastic cages outside the port town’s many seafood restaurants. They floated like alien pods in suspended animation, waiting to be picked for the next tourist’s plate. I later learned that while these mantises happen to be a delicacy, they are also the world’s strongest boxers. When they strike in defense mode, their arm-like dactyl clubs, which sit in a fighter’s ready stance close to the body, accelerate forward at eighty kilometers per hour—faster than a .22-caliber bullet.4 They can break aquarium tank glass or kill one another, thus the individual Coke bottles. At least it meant some litter was being recycled from the seabed.
Disembarking on Mabul and crossing the one-hundred-meter dock toward the island felt like walking the plank above a landfill.
Other cages rocked in the bottom of the fisherman’s boat: sea urchins in a blue bucket, crabs fidgeting in a shallow black bin and sea cucumbers floating in an old Styrofoam ice chest all joined bits of net and fishing line, jugs of drinking water, hanging clothes and gas for the outboard motor attached to his floating home. Behind him, a few other houseboats sat idly in front of a line of stilt huts that extended from the shore like a wonky wheel spoke. Most had three walls, some four, made from a patchwork of wood panels, corrugated iron and woven or thatched palm. The roofs extended just far enough to cover a small outdoor space used for storage, cooking and washing. I could see women squatting outside, one cleaning clothes in a pail, another feeding a small child. Without turning around, she threw something over her shoulder, and it joined the heap of underwater trash at her feet. A baby boy, naked with a sheen of sunburn glowing on his mahogany skin, walked out of another house and stood alone on the slat-wood porch. He stared at me as he started to cry, the wrenching wail of a toddler too upset to ask for what he needs.
As I reached the shore, the boardwalk ran so close to the huts that I could nearly see inside the living rooms. I felt ashamed and guilty for being there, for looking into another’s private life, for vacationing next to someone else’s reality and for hailing from a country that brought a landslide of plastic waste and disposables into this part of the world. As my feet traded wooden planks for the zen-garden sand of the dive resort, I marveled at the ignorant bliss of perspective. One turn of the head and I was back in the resort bubble, walking toward air conditioning, a prepaid lunch buffet and the ability to push the pollution I’d just seen from my head and into that little compartment in my heart labeled “That’s horrible, but someone else’s problem. What could I do about it anyway?” But the problem is, humanity’s wastefulness is now everyone’s problem.
No ocean, no life. No blue, no green. No ocean, no us.
—Sylvia Earle, marine biologist & ocean conservationist
As humans we create 1.3 billion tons of waste each year, a figure expected to rise to 2.2 billion tons by just 2025.5 This includes over three hundred million tons of plastic, fifty percent of which is used only once.6 A 2017 study estimated that seventy-nine percent of discarded plastics end up in landfills or littering the natural environment, with eight million tons escaping into the world’s oceans each year.7 That’s equivalent to filling five plastic grocery bags for every foot of coastline in the world.8 More than fifty percent of marine debris, including plastic, sinks. Plankton at the beginning of the food chain ingest that plastic. Fish eat the plankton. We eat the fish. Sixty percent of the world’s population relies on fish as its main source of protein.6 The oceans sustain our very life on Earth. They hold ninety-seven percent of Earth’s water, regulate our climate, absorb carbon dioxide and produce fifty to seventy percent of our oxygen; that’s more than all of the world’s rainforests combined.9 Last year, a study of global drinking water from five continents found that eighty-three percent of samples contained plastic particles.10 Tests of major bottled-water brands found that nearly all of them also contained plastic (at least ten tiny particles per liter).11 On average, plastics take 450 years to biodegrade, and many are not recyclable. That means every single piece of plastic ever made still exists in some form or another.12 Every piece of plastic you’ve ever bought or used will outlive you.
The waste we create, and the plastic we consume, will consume us if we do not make sweeping changes. First-world cities have become so efficient that the average person is unaware of how much we contribute to this pandemic. My corporate office in New York City had disposable cups at our overworked coffee machine; that’s two thousand employees drinking at least two coffees a day. I’d wager we produced enough cups in one year to fill at least a few of our twenty-six floors. The amount of takeout I ate on a weekly basis would have easily filled my small Manhattan shoebox of an apartment. Yet somehow the only time I got close to actually seeing the amount of trash I produced was when the NYC waste collectors went on strike. Thin sidewalks filled with landmines of trash bags rotting in the humid summer sun. Until that moment, I never truly appreciated my city’s sanitation workers, or could visualize the global problem. We could all use that same consumption reality check. By continuing to buy products we don’t need, we keep companies in business that not only pollute our city streets, but also sell the same products to fragile environments all over the world. Our consumption ripple effect reaches wide.
Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.
—Henry David Thoreau
In my following days on Mabul, and in six months traveling Southeast Asia, I saw as much raw natural beauty as I did thoughtless human waste. At a dive site off Mabul I came across a majestic sea turtle. He tolerated my company and floated effortlessly up to surface for a breath—while dodging a disposable diaper. Back on land in Semporna, an eight-year-old girl approached me and began to pantomime-beg for a sip of water. Drinkable tap water was nonexistent, so I handed her the plastic bottle in my hand. She took a few sips before triumphantly running back to her dad to display her score. He took it, knocked back the rest, then chucked the empty bottle off the dock and into the harbor without looking down.
In Thailand, I visited a waterfall made of rare limestone and mineral deposits that make the rocks so grippy, you can Spiderman-climb directly up the face of the falls with your bare hands and feet. Next I saw a woman using a plastic straw to drink out of a plastic water bottle. She threw it away and bought another. I ascended Victoria Peak in Hong Kong one day, only to see a commercial fisherman dump recycling from his boat straight into the harbor the next. I walked the ancient Nakasendo Trail in the mountains of Japan, then wandered into a supermarket where even bananas (in their own skins) were cased in plastic for a more hygienic sale.
In the Philippines I swam with giant clams, then crossed a channel outside Manila with more flotsam than birds on its surface. In Vietnam I visited underground caves so full of towering formations that it felt like walking on the bottom of the sea, or on another planet. I saw food wrappers and water bottles decorating those same stalagmites. Between the towering Avatar-like cliffs of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, discarded pieces of garbage floated like messages in plastic bottles. Maybe we’re sending them to our future selves—if only we would read them.
We have not inherited the earth from our fathers. We have borrowed it from our children.
W hile self-centered consumption is in our human DNA, mankind’s fascination with plastic is not. We were taught to need plastic in the same way we automatically brush our teeth in the morning, or chew gum to freshen bad breath. Its use is an unconscious habit that’s made its way into our daily lives, thanks mostly to the consumerism culprit of the twentieth century: advertising.
A New York billiards company commissioned the invention of the first type of plastic in 1863 when they ran a newspaper ad offering a reward for the creation of an ivory substitute. Ivory, which had become scarce and threatened the global elephant population, was no longer viable to create billiard balls. Twenty-three-year-old John Wesley Hyatt, would-be inventor, holed up in his backyard shed and experimented. Six years later, his tinkering led to celluloid, created from the cellulose in cotton (a natural polymer). Ironically, his company’s marketing materials spouted: “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale,” so “has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”13 They say hindsight is the only perfect science, so how could Hyatt have known that his invention, meant to spare the planet, would put it in danger within his children’s lifetime?
Realization crept in like a rising tide: The thing was already dead.
Next came industrialization, mass production and World War II. More plastic variants were developed throughout the 1920s and ’30s, like Styrofoam, nylon, Teflon and Kevlar, with many used to support the US war effort. After WWII—during which time plastic production almost quadrupled—ended, companies found ways to transform excess materials into new consumer goods and market them into every household in America. Enter Tupperware, Saran Wrap, Barbie, sneakers, acrylic taillights, Formica counters—the list goes on.13 When no one was looking, plastic on the lips of advertisers fused itself into the American way of life and, eventually, the global economy.
For decades, advertisers have capitalized on humans’ ability to form habits. As Charles Duhigg explains in his book The Power of Habit, identifying a simple cue, associating that cue with a repeatable action and providing a clear reward creates a craving-filling habit loop that becomes automatic routine. In the early 1900s an American toothpaste salesman associated the slimy film you feel when you run your tongue over your teeth with the need to brush. His advertisements positioned the reward as a “prettier smile” and added an unnecessary minty fresh taste and foaming quality to the toothpaste to make consumers crave that just-brushed zing. Ten years later, half the US population was brushing their teeth every day.14 It makes one wonder about our relationship with plastics, especially those designed for single use. For instance, why do we need those little bags for fruits and vegetables in the produce section of the supermarket? You reach for a few apples, and as you move to place them into your shopping cart, there’s the cue: it’s time to grab one of those thin plastic bags to keep everything separated. The reward? Your items stay “clean” and free of cross-contamination. Never mind that you’ll probably wash them later, and put them all away together to happily comingle in a fruit bowl or fridge drawer—just heaven forbid they touch that pesky cantaloupe before then. You didn’t make a conscious decision to grab that bag; it was just waiting there for its moment to jump into your hand. It would take just one millisecond of awareness to dodge that plastic freebie and swap habit loop for conscious choice.
In any moment of decision…the worst thing you can do is nothing.
W hat if you were forced to keep your garbage and recycling in the entryway of your home instead of in the bins outside (and out of mind)? What if you saw it every day, and so did every single guest who came to stay? What if our refuse was picked up only once a month instead of weekly, or if we had to drive it to the landfill and recycling center ourselves instead of paying to make it magically disappear? I bet we’d all try to buy more thoughtfully and reconsider the companies trying to sell us stuff. We’d ask that grocery stores stop burdening us with single-use plastic bags, and follow the example of the Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza, which debuted the world’s first plastic-free aisle in their Amsterdam store in February 2018.15 Companies that use plastic would buy only one-hundred-percent-recycled materials if they wanted to stay in business. As shoppers, we’d help to drive up this demand for recycled materials, which would in turn spur development of lower-cost, more-efficient recycling techniques.16
We’d all embody the Japanese concept of mottainai: the feeling of emotional regret about something being wasted.17 Our cities would learn from Japan and provide fewer public trash bins, making each citizen acutely aware of the trash they create.18 It would make us think twice before purchasing a water bottle from a vending machine, because that plastic bottle would become our responsibility to carry around all day and dispose of at home. Food vendors would be responsible for collecting the trash they sell to consumers with their meal. We’d hold global companies equally accountable. Amazon would provide citywide receptacles for reuse of plastic packaging. Coca-Cola would help provide more-sustainable drinking water to countries without infrastructure instead of selling them their sub-brand Dasani water bottles. Starbucks would use one-hundred-percent-biodegradable cups instead of producing the four billion plastic-lined cups that go to landfills each year.19 If the customer is always right, and we are the customers, that means we have the power to speak through our purchasing decisions. We can change the market. We can supply the demand for corporations to answer for the waste they produce. We can’t pick up the pieces, but we can try to stop plastic pollution at its source.
Among nature’s favors, I found mankind’s contribution: penny-size bits of plastic sprinkled among the shells—blue, red, green, yellow, a sad litter litmus test of our times.
Mabul Island may seem far away, but eventually it will be in our own backyards. One cold morning, I wandered the lonely coast of Gemstone Beach in Orepuki, New Zealand, a small town on the country’s South Island at -46 degrees south, just over sixteen hundred miles from Antarctica. Leaning against a salty breeze, I picked my way along the shore where seaweed, scattered stones and bits of driftwood laced the tide line. Among nature’s favors, I found mankind’s contribution: penny-size bits of plastic sprinkled among the shells—blue, red, green, yellow, a sad litter litmus test of our times. Toothbrushes missing the bristles, half a lighter, what used to be a pen, bottle caps, straws, Styrofoam pieces, all broken down—an indication of the journey that plastic had made to wash up at my feet. That beach could have been one of many I saw in Southeast Asia, but instead I found it at the end of the youngest country on Earth. No corner of the world today remains untouched by humanity.20 With every item we consume, we stamp farther into a toxic footprint that soon even the waves will be unable to wash away. This land was not made for you and me. It is ours to lose. But we still have a chance to shift the tides, and the first way we can make a change is to demand it with our wallets.
Sarah J. Booher is an American writer currently living in Wellington, New Zealand. She was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, and a career in advertising took her from the West Coast to New York City before she made the leap abroad to indulge her passion for travel. In nine months living full time in a campervan exploring New Zealand, and six more traversing Borneo, Japan and Southeast Asia, Sarah was affronted by the manmade pollution diluting our world. As a conservationist with a background in consumer behavior, she wants each of us to realize we have the power to change the course of our plastic planet—one conscious buying decision at a time. This story was originally published on her blog on April 30, 2018.
Lead image: Julia Joppien
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