On a recent Saturday, I went out on the Chesapeake Bay with my 15 year old daughter, Lillian, for a “trash trawl,” gathering water samples for lab evaluation to better understand the trash problem in the Bay, particularly as it relates to plastic microbeads.
Microbeads are found in many personal care products such as toothpaste and skin cleansers. Because they are tiny, they move through wastewater treatment plants and into local waterways. They also serve as magnets for other petroleum-based pollutants, and therefore have very high levels of toxicity. Fish can ingest them, as can humans through our consumption of fish.
Our “trash trawl” to investigate the extent of microbead trash in the Bay was hosted by The Story of Stuff Project – the organization that grew out of an extraordinary 20 minute video by Annie Leonard several years ago – and Trash Free Maryland, a local nonprofit focused on preventing trash pollution.
Thanks to these two organizations, Maryland has a new law – HB 216 — that bans both the manufacturing and sale of microbeads. Not resting on their laurels, the organizations are using the samples and lab results to heighten awareness about microbeads – the law doesn’t go into effect until 2019, so consumer behavior is still very important – and inform the development of regulations for implementation of the law.
It was hard for Lillian and me to take in the full scope of the problem based on a few samples. Still, it was a bit unsettling for us to see the flecks of plastic in the middle of the Bay where one hopes to see more pristine conditions.
While seeing the polluted water samples helped to bring the problem closer to home, it was the humanity and steadfastness of our hosts that left us emotionally soaring after our sail. The Story of Stuff Project has been in the trenches chalking up big victories banning microbeads in California New Jersey, Illinois, Maine and Colorado. Trash Free Maryland has been at the heart of successful regional campaigns including laws that ban foam food packaging as well as those that require disposable bag fees.
These are big accomplishments, spearheaded by people with big hearts and dogged determination. And that’s the sentiment that lingered with my daughter and me. For a young person (as well as adults), the environmental crisis can feel overwhelming. “Their work is inspiring and gives me hope,” Lillian remarked.
Sustainability, in my view, brings out our better nature. What I mean is that living more lightly on this earth forces us to think about more than just ourselves – it requires that we expand and follow our hearts in our day-to-day living and act with moral courage. It also forces us to reflect on our culture and whether there is something askew.
Sustainability scholar John Ehrenfeld, in his book Sustainability by Design, argues that our culture is characterized by a pathology in which we are defined by “having” rather than “being.” This leads to a misguided quest for satisfaction through increased levels of consumption rather than through authentic meaning. It also puts us on the path of unsustainability.
In other words, our “having” mode of life and our take, make, waste culture is a primary reason for environmental degradation. Moreover, this materialism degrades and coarsens our social condition and diverts us from focusing on the things that truly matter and that define our humanity.
What moved my daughter and me on that Saturday afternoon was exposure to committed and caring individuals like our hosts, Stiv Wilson, The Story of Stuff Project’s Campaign Director, and Julie Lawson, Trash Free Maryland’s Founder, as well as our sailboat captain, Mike Jewell, who volunteered his boat and time.
They had all made the shift to “being” and, as such, can inspire us all to do the same for both our environment and personal happiness. They also reminded us, to use the sailing theme, that we need all hands on deck.
By Douglas Weisburger, Senior Planning Specialist, Sustainability Programs, Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection