I am currently away from beautiful Bahia Ballena, spending a little time in Southern California to visit family, run a few errands, and get a little relaxation in. Despite having lived here for many years, it was still a culture shock after not having visited the United States in a year and a half. There’s something about it here that’s incomparable to anywhere else I’ve ever lived — everything just seems easier, more available, and more convenient — especially the acquisition of new products. To be completely honest, this ease and availability of products that I “need” (aka want) can be really nice, especially because there are certain aspects of modern life that do sometimes feel more difficult in Costa Rica. Yet it was with a “tabula rosa” (blank slate) mindset that I was reminded that all of this consumption and convenience comes at a cost.
My most recent “a-ha!” moment
My story is perhaps unique. I grew up in a very environmentally conscious household, in the “green” province of British Columbia, in the [arguably] progressive country of Canada. I grew up shopping at thrift stores, reciting the 3 Rs in primary school, and looking up to prominent Canadian environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Robert Hunter. I now live in Costa Rica — another country with environmentalism woven into its very fabric — and co-own a company that is not just creating environmental awareness, but also making pro-environmental actions a top priority. While I/we are by no means perfect, it’s safe to say that we consider ourselves environmentalists and, personally, at this stage in my life, my environmental behavior is so ingrained that it feels natural.
For some reason, I have been unconsciously imagining that everyone (at the very least in the developed world), also practices those [now] 6 Rs as well. Living in a pristine, beautiful, and largely unsullied environment, it’s easy to forget about what’s going on elsewhere in the world. Yet while I was sitting in a restaurant in Orange County where the waiter brought me a straw after I specifically asked for my drink without, I started doing the calculations: if there are over 20 million people in Southern California alone, and everyone eats out just once a week, that’s over a billion straws (just from one small corner of the world) thrown out annually. Now think about the entire state, country, continent… and finally, world. The numbers are astounding, in the worst possible way.
And that’s just thinking about straws! Never mind coffee cups, plastic utensils, styrofoam containers, plastic bags, and plastic packaging — items we buy and toss out on a daily basis with no second thought. Items that could be avoided with a little extra planning, foresight, and commitment. Just try to imagine that on a global scale, and remember that these products will exist simultaneously as long as our planet does, because they never biodegrade.
Being hyper-aware of the plastic in your environment
In this day and age, the first step in reducing your plastic use is to be extremely conscious of its presence. Since it’s so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that we’re using something that is so destructive. It’s practically an invisible issue, we’ve all grown up with it (and for many of those years, not really knowing its dangers and what a huge problem it would turn out to be), and therefore we take its presence for granted. That’s the disturbing aspect of plastic, and why it’s such a difficult situation to get ahold of. It’s absurdly cheap to make, and when oil prices drop, it is literally cheaper for large companies to either make or purchase new plastic than it is to use alternative products, or even to recycle for that matter. With the global population on the rise, that means that there will be [much] more new plastic in circulation every year.
There’s no question that we as a species need to vastly reduce our plastic consumption in addition to trying to do damage control on what’s already been done. There have been enough studies conducted in the past several years to show that we are, slowly but surely, covering every square inch of our planet with plastic, from large pieces right down to the extremely microscopic ones. Not only that, micro-plastics are ending up in the ocean and from there, are going up the food chain. As we consume them, it’s building up in our own bodies. It’s a global catastrophe in the making.
Making a conscious choice to reduce your use
Reducing your single-use plastic consumption takes a conscious and significant effort. Once you make the decision to start, you realize that it’s actually a lot harder than you would think to do so. The biggest problem seems to be that those who aren’t environmentally focused don’t understand the practices of those who are. Take going to the grocery store for instance: sometimes I forget my bags at home when I go food shopping, and even though I say “no bags, please”, it seems that if I look away for a minute, someone has come along and bagged my items in what feels like a hundred different bags, (which then I have to remove, leave, and just hope that they get reused). It’s not infrequent for me to stuff as much as I can into my purse and take the rest out in my arms (with, at times, things falling in the parking lot), and at this point, I’m used to patrons and cashiers looking at me like I’m eccentric.
At restaurants, I have gotten up and run over to the bar just to make sure they don’t put a straw in my drink, because I have found that even if you ask for “no straw, please”, the server often times forgets — not because they’re bad at their job, but because it’s so ingrained for them to include a straw. Unless you’re willing to go to an extreme (like shadowing your server and to make extra sure they don’t put a straw in at the last minute, or taking the time to explain to them why plastic is so destructive — showing them a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in their nose, perhaps?), chances are, you will still use plastic even if you set out not to.
In short, it’s a great commitment and challenge to reduce your single-use plastics, mostly because our society has neither recognized the problem nor collectively decided to fix it. If you do decide to take it on, you will get frustrated: because you will notice just how many people around you are using so much superfluous single-use plastic — it’s literally everywhere — in the restaurants you’re in, on the train, at work, at the beach, even as you scroll through your Instagram feed. And in your own quest, you will still use single-use plastics even if you don’t mean to — either because you forget, or because your request for “no plastic, please” is ignored or forgotten, or because you simply feel resigned or get tired of making it a thing all the time. The worst part is it can become an obsession, and you start noticing it all the time and feeling really down about it (and subsequently, the state of the world).
We must all take on this problem, together
While all of the reasons above may indeed make you feel hesitant to take on this task, it is something that you absolutely and unquestionably need to do. While this issue may be a silent one now, we will soon reach a point where it will be very obvious, and therefore too late. At that point, we will be forced to look back and ask ourselves why we didn’t do anything about it — the signs were all there. Whether we like it or not, the developed world is a global leader for smaller and developing nations — people around the world look to these countries, their people and their habits, as inspiration. And as long as we live and promote lifestyles of unfettered consumption, it’s going to be what everyone seeks to do. Luckily, smaller countries have already banned certain single-use plastics such as Kenya and Morocco with plastic bags. Our own Costa Rica is aiming to be the first country to ban all single-use plastics by 2021.
As for me, spending time in the U.S. reminded me that there is still tons of work that needs to be done. In my personal life, I want to do better — both reducing my own environmental impact and finding ways to get more people on board. Through our work at Bodhi Surf School, we will continue to rise to this task — we began looking at our plastic consumption in 2014, and have been taking steps to reduce it bit by bit. Another big way we will continue to do this is by hosting our annual Ocean Guardian Contest, a forum for global, committed citizens to display the work they do to protect our earth and have a shot at receiving some awesome recognition and rewards for it. After all, we’re in this together.
The Ocean Guardian Contest will run in the month of October, so start getting your entries ready now! The grand prize is a surf and yoga camp for two people, as well as a bunch of cool products from environmentally conscious companies. Check out all of the details here!
For more information on plastics and a great deal of resources, we encourage you to head over to our friends at Plastic Pollution Coalition.