Sarah Bedolfe
In a sick twist of collective karma, the things we throw away circulate back to us one day. What to do?

A year ago I discussed the problem of trash in the world’s oceans – also known as the plastic soup – and I made a resolution to reduce how much waste I produce, especially plastic. While home for the holidays in California, I spent some much-needed time out in the sun, on the beach, and on the water before returning to the cold, wet Netherlands. I also got another good, hard look at the consequences of human wastefulness. After a stormy day, I headed up to Crystal Cove, north of Laguna Beach, for a walk on the beach. There, I found tide pools filled to the brim with washed-up waste.

Contemplating marine debris, once again.

Tidepools after a storm: more litter than critters. 

Large pieces of trash can entangle animals, or can be mistaken for food and choke or starve them.  And when plastic breaks down, it never disappears, it is just broken into smaller and smaller pieces. It will become as small as plankton, and eventually, it will become even smaller than plankton. As you can see in this video, scientists even captured plankton eating plastic on camera.

From the top of the food chain all the way to the bottom, animals are known to accidentally consume pieces of plastic. It gets worse: plastic is not just a physical hindrance, it is also contains toxic compounds. Not only is plastic manufactured with organic contaminants, like PCBs, but as it drifts around the ocean, other chemicals stick to the surface plastic. The longer a piece of plastic drifts around, the more it accumulates toxicity.

Plastic soup is not a tasty appetizer. This snowy egret at Crystal Cove is foraging for a real meal. 

What happens if lots of plankton that contain tiny toxic plastics are eaten by a sardine? What if some sardines are eaten by a tuna… and what if that tuna ends up on your own dinner plate? Scientists have found plastic particles in seafood sold for human consumption. In a sick twist of collective karma, the things we throw away circulate back to us one day. 

And what about cleaning up the plastic soup? It turns out that’s a tall order. It’s tempting to entrust magnificent new inventions with the task of filtering plastic out of the water. But the truth is that clean-up technology proposed so far has not adequately addressed the complexity of the problem. Any device that successfully captures plastic will almost inevitably also catch and harm marine life.

An especially magnificent day at Crystal Cove.

I briefly cast my worries aside during an impromptu sailing lesson. Out on the water, you don’t notice all the microplastic drifting about – but it’s there.

The best and most important thing we can do is to start at the source and prevent future waste from reaching the ocean at all. Ensure clean waterways and coastlines by reducing how much plastic you use and how much trash you produce, and by participating in beach and river cleanups. 

Unfortunately I’m still a long way from zero-waste, but I have been able to dramatically reduce the volume of trash I produce. That required only a few very simple and easy habits, which I believe anyone can manage.   

  • I keep a reusable canteen and mug at my desk. Smaller ones go with me during travel. I drink tapwater – and skip the straw! My daily hydration and caffeination routines are pretty much waste-free!
  • Keeping a small travel set of tableware or a pocketknife in my bag means I don’t need to resort to disposable plastic utensils. Tupperware or reusable baggies make better lunch packaging than disposable bags.
  • I have a canvas bag tucked into my purse or backpack wherever I go, always on hand so I don’t need to resort to plastic during any unexpected shopping spree.
  • I get my groceries in bulk when possible, from Groningen’s awesome package-free shop Opgeweckt Noord or from the market – you can look for similar shops in your own area. If I am at a regular grocery store, I compare products and buy the ones with the least packaging.
  • Leftovers get eaten, not tossed out. I have banished disposable napkins and paper towels from my kitchen. Instead, I use cloth and throw it in with the rest of the laundry when it’s dirty.
  • I have started experimenting with zero-waste cleaning and toiletry recipes. My best advice on that front is to refer you to Zero Waste Home and Trash is for Tossers. They are the experts and a real inspiration!

Visit the One World One Ocean Campaign Plastics Breakdown here for videos, infographics, and more, all about plastic pollution and how to reduce your impact.

I stumbled on some creative desert gardens while visiting Pioneertown, California.
Upcycling trash to treasure AND it’s drought smart – brilliant!


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