Usually when I talk about "being plastic" in conservation I mean that we grow our emotional and social intelligence so that we can learn and adapt to others and a changing world. We grow because we want happier and more meaningful lives, and also because we are better conservationists and community members when we train our minds to “go with the flow” in complex social situations. We are adaptable and resilient, while not letting go of expressing, honestly and empathetically the harm done by others to ourselves and life.
I recently learned a whole new meaning for "going with the flow" and "being plastic." I worked on the Atlantic Coast of Guatemala in June 2019 surveying the endangered yellow-headed parrot with our partners (CONAP, FUNDAECO, and the village of Quineles). We had to camp on the beach, which to my dismay was covered in plastic refuse. Everywhere I walked I heard the crunch, crunch of plastic beneath my feet, and when I was in the waves walking around mangrove trees, the bits of plastic swirled and caught on my legs. I was repulsed by the syringes, toothbrushes, flip-flops, bottles, etc. that I saw wherever I looked.
And this amount of plastic was just what I could see. Microplastics are throughout the oceans, resulting in 100% of sea turtles and 60% of seabirds having plastic in their bodies. Humans, too, ingest these potentially harmful substances, becoming plastic in a very different way. The plastic on this particular stretch of beach in Guatemala comes from the Motagua River, which is trashing beaches and islands in the entire region. The Motagua River flows from Guatemala’s interior where town after town throws its garbage into the river. There is so much discarded plastic-ware, that each of us in a minute or two could find a pair of crocs or flip flops to match our shoe size. The colors or styles didn’t always match, so we had a few laughs as we worked around the flow of plastic that came from afar and would stay a long time on this beach. We had to find humor because we were living in a trashed environment, with shockingly fewer parrots than the last time we counted here, and fewer mangrove trees, many that were stunted or leaning in dying groves.
My camping hammock with shoes waiting to slip into, and these were shoes I didn't pack with me
I vowed on that beach to not go with the flow. I have to change my consumer choices that involve plastic. It’s not acceptable that we use so much plastic and dispose of it inadequately. It’s not acceptable that beauty is thwarted and life harmed. We must find a way to use less plastic and help others to dispose of it properly. Simply blaming communities is not the answer, though there is plenty of that bouncing back and forth between Guatemala and Honduras. People need solutions, and their communities need the world to know of the challenges in their social structures and economies that make it difficult to handle garbage any differently than they do.
So many people have been “sold a bill of goods,” in this case plastic-wrapped or plastic-bagged this or that, while their interests and needs have been “thrown away,” treated as garbage. The beach screamed injustice, and I inwardly screamed back. Though my reaction was strongly that of disgust on this beach, I also felt a connection to humanity, because it was profoundly intimate to walk a mile in other people’s shoes, and see what was discarded from their homes.
It's hard to know where our camp ends and the trash heap begins
May we wake up to each other’s trash and humanity, and change our course. Anyone can engage in a beach cleanup, though clean ups are just removing a tiny bit of the 8 million metric tons of plastic dumped in the oceans each year, and their impact is debatable. We also need to hold plastic companies accountable and insist they develop alternative products that decompose naturally. And each of us who can need to not just reduce the plastic we consume, but all that we consume.
For each other, for the beaches, for beauty, for the trees, for the parrots, and for all that is life.