A Plastic Ramble

Sunshine and 60 degrees! Last week’s weather brought us a couple tauntingly beautiful days to remind us of the coming spring. It was warm enough to forego coats and hats. The snow and ice had melted in the beaming sun, leaving the sidewalks perfect for walking. I could not resist the invitation.

I was psyched to walk to the gym – it always seems strange to drive there to burn off calories I could have burned by walking! Not only that, I was excited to look for signs of spring. Earlier that week my friend Michaela had discovered tender, green hosta buds peeping up through the snow that was then still on the ground. She posted a beautiful photo on Instagram and I hoped to find some, too.

Sights like these elevate my spirits as much as walking energizes my body, so I kept scanning the ground as I tread in hopes of finding treasures. But what I discovered instead was … trash! Plastic bottles, fast food wrappers, plastic shopping bags and crumpled foil were all caught in the base of the shrubbery edging the sidewalk corners. And when I stepped into the streets, there was more tucked along the curb. Had people just been throwing their trash from cars at this corner all winter? This is not what should catch our eye to herald the coming of spring!

And yet, that is what I saw. Which makes this the perfect time to talk about a few topics that profoundly impact the health of ocean life in our Ocean State. We’re going to talk about plastics history and plastic trash, the watershed, bag bans and zero waste. That’s a whole lot to talk about!

Plastics and Trash

The ocean is full of plastic trash. While marine debris includes paper, wood, metal and other manufactured materials, the vast majority of that trash, (75% according to the Ocean Health Index), is plastic. National Geographic reports there are 5.25 trillion pieces of trash in the ocean. 5.25 TRILLION pieces of something that did not even exist on the planet before 1907! That’s the year Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented the early form of plastic known as Bakelite.

Moldable, durable, abundant and inexpensive, Bakelite was a dream material for mass production. With a solid investment in molds and less time and labor cost than fabricating, a manufacturer could rapidly turn out a multitude of products at affordable prices. A fortune in sales awaited if the items appealed to the public. To ensure appeal, manufacturers hired fine artists trained in sketching and sculpture to design the items. Working with this modern new material and its limitless shape and color potential, these artists became the first generation of industrial designers and established the field of study and profession in which I would earn a degree and work some generations later. Their concepts appealed to the public for their style and function, their unbreakable quality and their low price. Bakelite was molded into casings for telephones and radios, into beads and bracelets, into timepieces and toys, and into all manner of serving food. And we have been consuming plastic ever since.

In the century since Bakelite’s invention, plastic has evolved ever more advanced material qualities: It can be rigid or supple, opaque or transparent. It can be foam or fiber or paint. It can be thick as a brick or thin as a membrane, which itself can be either porous or impenetrable. That impenetrability makes plastic an ideal material for packaging: it keeps medical supplies sterile and keeps and food and beverages fresh and sanitary. Meanwhile, its printability allows splashy graphics to attract a shopper’s eye while its transparency gives them an eye to what’s inside.

In many ways plastic is miraculous. Many lifesaving medical procedures could not exist without it. But the combination of its indestructibility with our “disposable” lifestyle has created a disaster Baekeland never imagined: an ocean trashed with briefly used objects whose material lasts forever.  Single-use water bottles, plastic shopping bags, six-pack rings, snack packages, to go containers, cups and utensils, drinking straws, microbeads and cigarette lighters and filters are among these briefly used and discarded plastics. The Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance estimates that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year! And 50% of that trash was used only ONCE and tossed away, because it was mostly packaging!

Besides being a visual blight, the shopping bags and six-pack rings have entangled marine animals. These and other plastic objects are often mistaken for food by marine creatures, none of whom have evolved a sorting mechanism to cope with the sudden presence of this new material that mimics and mixes in with their food source. Intestinal wounds and obstructions are the suffering awaiting the fish, tortoises, birds and mammals who swallow larger pieces. In addition, plastics act as a magnet to other ocean toxins, so a meal of microbeads not only deprives a creature of calories and nutrients, it can expose it to a concentrated toxin load. Perhaps someday this very characteristic can be employed in a controlled way to sweep the sea of toxins, but right now ocean plastics are simply out of control.

Take a walk on any RI beach and you’re bound to find plastic trash that has washed ashore — just like it has on beaches all over the world. But what you can’t see is that this trash has permeated all the depths of the ocean. You might think that most of this trash comes from cruise ships, container ship spills and recreational boaters. But the fact of the matter is that 80% of it comes from people on land. And this leads us to the next topic, the watershed.

The Watershed

To explain what a watershed is, let’s walk back to that corner on Hope Street where I saw all that trash. That corner, as well as most of the state of Rhode Island, is in the Narragansett Bay’s watershed, which encompasses 1,600 square miles of land; 60% in Massachusetts and 40% in Rhode Island.

This means that all the many rivers in that area, like the Moshassuck, Seekonk and Woonasaquatucket, eventually flow into the Narragansett Bay.  There isn’t a river near that corner, but there is a storm drain, and the water in the storm drain’s pipe flows to the bay, too, after being released into the Moshassuck. That water also carries any toxins, bacteria and trash it picks up along the way and deposits it into the bay, where it is then carried out to the ocean. So the watershed is the land from which 80% of the ocean’s trash originates. Land like that corner on Hope Street. Hopefully, the grate on the storm drain will keep any trash from finding its way to the bay before the street sweepers start their April rounds.  But let’s just pick it up to be certain and to beautify the corner.

Let’s walk a little farther east to the banks of the Seekonk River on the edge of Swan Point Cemetery. This is a serenely beautiful site. Sometimes I come here to watch the sunrise over the water as scullers and ducks glide by. Today, waves lap gently through the reeds in the shallows to meet the blanket of leaves lining the tree shaded shore.  This sacred place smells like a spring thaw – that promising scent of green beginning to push forth from the ground. Sometime soon, wild leeks will burst from the earth with their light onion scent. But what I saw popping up through the leaves was not buds. Again I found trash, and much of it was plastic.

Was this trash left behind by visitors here? Did it get blown down here from streets above on a windy day? Did it get washed down the cemetery’s slope in a streaming rainstorm? Or did it originate miles upstream to be washed ashore here by the tides? One thing is for sure – if it is not collected it will get carried out to sea from this watershed edge. In Sweden there is a new fitness trend called plogging – a combination of jogging and picking up trash.  Next time we take this walk, let’s carry a reusable bag like Swedish ploggers do. And gloves, even if it’s 60 degrees and sunny.

Cleaning Up

Fortunately, Rhode Island has numerous environmental groups that work to protect the watershed health and clear it of trash. Besides removing tons of trash from our shorelines and waterways with the cleanups they organize, they’ve painstakingly documented the trash and have used the data in the fight to eradicate the source of that trash through policy. Clean Ocean Access in Newport, for example, has successfully banned cigarettes on beaches (where all those filters and lighters in the ocean come from) and just this year achieved the ban on single-use shopping bags in Newport, Middletown and Jamestown. Kudos to them as they continue their work to get them banned in Portsmouth. Block Island also banned bags this year and a Providence bag ban proposal is advancing thanks to Upstream, Clean Water Action, Zero Waste Providence and the city’s Office of Sustainability. Bristol and Warren are also considering banning bags, to join Barrington, which banned them in 2012. Wouldn’t it be great if our entire state were to ban them as California has? It’s a cause you can take up if you live in a town that hasn’t banned them yet!

100 Days to Zero Trash

As much as I applaud these organizations and the great work they are doing, and have participated in Save The Bay shoreline cleanups, I want to know what else I as an individual can do to keep my own trash from getting into the ocean. As synchronicity would have it, just as I began writing this article, I saw a posting looking for contestants for a 100 DAYS TO ZERO TRASH challenge being created by RISD media arts student Tara Gupta and her team. I applied and was accepted along with three other contestants!

As I write this, I am now on day 8! I’m not sure what’s harder – finding ways to buy food without plastic packaging or having to film my life and see myself on video constantly. Especially when I can barely stand taking selfies as it is! But the message is so important I’m going to get over it! I hope you’ll tune in and catch the episodes every Sunday on YouTube’s 100 Days to Waste! at, and on Instagram @100_daysto0waste

Whale Guitar at Impact Everything

Lastly, I would like to invite you to a Whale Guitar event on Thurs, Mar 15. It’s at Impact Everything (a new store on Thayer Street) from 6 – 8pm! It’s one of The Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s “Green Drinks” gatherings where you can meet other social entrepreneurs and environmentalists. Come and see what The Whale Guitar Project is all about! Food and drink will be available as you explore the store and mingle! You’ll hear performances by two incredible guitarists who we’ve lined up to play it.

Jake Menendez is an imaginative songwriter and improvisational guitarist who delighted our audience when he played The Whale Guitar last summer at The Newport Art Museum!

Chris Quiray is one of those wizards on guitar who make you wonder how what you are seeing and hearing is even humanly possible. Chris is also known as “The Solar Guy,” and has his own solar installation business, which is in perfect alignment with the project and the event location: Impact Everything. It’s a store on a mission to eradicate global issues through social enterprise. Every single product you pick up from clothing, to accessories, to household goods makes a direct positive impact on the planet and its people.

Hope to see you there! I may just play a song or two myself! It’s a free event, but please register on Eventbrite:

These monthly events are made possible in partnership with: Cleantech Open NortheastEcoRI NewsNew England Clean Energy Council/Navigate, and Slater Technology Fund.