Earth Matters: Message for our times in a discarded bottle

Message in a bottle

We’ve been shocked into a standstill. At first, it felt like a much-needed sabbatical from the fast-paced, overcommitted life of non-essential distractions.

Over two months into sheltering-in-place, however, the coronavirus has claimed the lives of beloved friends and family members and left irreparable wounds in the collective psyche. We are stuck in limbo with a sense of uncertainty we’ve never experienced before.

When will things return to “normal?” Deep in thought, with my gaze lowered, I came across a message in a bottle on my daily walk.

I discovered a single-use, non-recyclable disposable mask tucked inside this plastic bottle that had been kicked to the curb. This message was left on the side of the road at a dead-end street.

Plastic bottles last much longer than a human lifetime. Plastic is material that’s meant to last forever but is frequently designed for single-use purposes. A plastic bag has an average working lifetime of fewer than 15 minutes.

Now, more than ever, I feel existential angst about the future of mankind, while simultaneously being sincerely curious about what kind of sentient being will stumble upon the remains of this plastic bottle 450 years from now? What will they make of this message?

It seems like the coronavirus crisis has kicked all pressing environmental concerns to the curb for now. New York City suspended its curbside compost pickup until 2021 and early on in this pandemic, many supermarkets brought back the plastic bag. To me that felt ironic, given the virus lives longer on plastic than on many other surfaces. Starbucks banned reusable cups and insisted on single-use disposables for your drink. It was striking to witness how quickly we turned away from sustainable long-term thinking to return to a throw-away culture in order to create the illusion of safety. The problem is we can’t survive the future with short-term thinking. There is no magic bullet, no quick fix.

Held hostage by a short-term view of safety, many have felt completely justified in jeopardizing our future in exchange for convenience.

For anyone who’s invested in reducing petrochemical-based plastic pollution, fear of the coronavirus is only intensified by the underlying climate anxiety that alerts us to the fact that every move we make matters. I worry that increased food deliveries and take-outs, rather than dine-ins are adding to waste streams. I worry about the increased use of single-use, non-recyclable disposables.

Even Zero Waste lifestyle blogger Lauren Singer, founder and CEO of the Package Free Shop, who hadn’t sent plastic to landfill in eight years reported on how she stocked up on items wrapped in plastic.

Global demand for products such as disposable wipes, toxic cleaning agents, hand sanitizer, disposable gloves and single-use masks is at a record high and double-bagging of single-use non-recyclables at hospitals is standard practice to prevent spread.

Plastic industry lobbyists have taken advantage of this frightening moment in time with fear-based campaigns claiming that plastic bags are more hygienic than reusable ones, successfully rolling back on plastic bag bans in several grocery stores across the nation.

Plastic Oceans International is a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about plastic pollution to inspire behavioral change. It says “more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year.”  Over one million bags are used every minute and less than 1 percent of those are recycled.

Moreover, we’ve made way more plastic in the past two decades than the yield from the entire history of plastic production.

Billions of pounds of plastics can be found in amorphous trash islands generated by convection currents in the ocean, the largest and most notorious known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch measures twice the size of Texas.

Here in the Town of North Hempstead, plastic bags are not recycled, only plastics marked No. 1 and No. 2 are accepted curbside. Recyclables must be clean and sorted for efficient disposal. Many are not aware of the proper recycling protocols, depositing the entire load in landfill. The motto, clearly stated on the Town of North Hampstead website, is: “When in doubt, throw it out!”

Here’s the deal: There’s no need for doubt. I encourage consumers to review here the latest guidelines for our local waste management.

Instead of single-use items, consider the use of reusable, washable fabric masks, gloves and shopping bags.

Plastic gloves give a false sense of security in that the risk of cross-contamination is greater. I’ve seen many wearing plastic gloves, touch their phone and face, as if the gloves wouldn’t carry the virus. That’s irresponsible. It’s safer to consider your hands contaminated until you wash them.

Instead of plastic bottled, alcohol-based hand sanitizers that strip away the skin’s first protective layer against infection and leave cracks for germs to enter, I’ve turned my household towards a universal solution to prevent infections: Regular old-fashioned handwashing with a bar of moisturizing soap that leaves the skin nourished and clean of virus. Waste-free washing.

The excellent news in this crisis is that individual coronavirus particles are easily destroyed with soap and water.

The virus genetic material is encapsulated in a sphere of fat molecules, and this lipid shell is easily disrupted with soap. Proper hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds kills the virus.

A 2013 study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University found that fewer than 5 percent of subjects washed their hands properly after going to the bathroom. It takes at least 20 seconds of rubbing and scrubbing, rinsing and don’t forget to dry your hands after changing the washable bathroom towel often.

Rushing this process will ruin your effort, so take your time. To minimize water waste, just like when brushing your teeth, please make sure you turn off the faucet while you lather your hands in soap. You can make use of this precious time spent lathering by singing your favorite tune, thinking about something fun, allowing yourself to daydream or recite a list of things you’re grateful for.

Alternatively, you can opt to keep it simple and use the time spent to be mindful of your hands touching water and soap. Feel the texture of soap and water, and stay purposefully without judgment in the present moment awareness of washing your hands. This type of awareness practice is an ancient form of stress relief, termed mindfulness meditation.

When we face the mess we’re in with clarity and a long-term view, we have an opportunity to make the right decision that serves to benefit all. We’ve already illustrated that we’re capable of making difficult decisions. We’ve made a decision to shelter-in-place to keep each other safe. While we’re at it, can we make a decision to use less plastic?

Be fantastic. Use less plastic.



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