The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

April 24, 2012

What I Should Have Said to Melissa Harris-Perry: We Are the Albatross

This past Sunday, I had the honor to be a guest on MCNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show. It was my very first live national appearance, so as you can imagine, I was just a little concerned with getting everything right. As instructed, I put on way more makeup than usual (usual being none at all most days) and was grateful for finally having found plastic-free mascara this year! I got a haircut (probably the first in over a year), plucked my crazy eyebrows (couldn’t deal with mixing up a batch of sugar wax) and slathered on so much eyeshadow and mascara that Michael kept staring at me and going, “Wow. Your eyes.” And of course, for several days, I went over and over in my mind what I wanted to say.

The theme of the show was environmental justice, and the main guest for the segment was the amazing Majora Carter, environmental justice advocate and founder of Sustainable South Bronx. I was to join the conversation, happening live in New York City, from a studio in San Francisco, and my task was to tell my story and also be part of whatever conversation was already taking place. The show airs live at 10am ET, which meant I had to get my night owl butt up and be at the studio at 7am my time. No small feat. And not only did I have to deliver my body to the studio, but my brain had to be alert and functioning as well.

It was such an interesting experience. I sat in a straight-backed chair with an image of the Golden Gate Bridge projected behind me and listened to the show through an ear monitor. But I couldn’t see anything that was taking place, so I had no idea what was being shown on the screen and couldn’t make eye contact with the other panelists. I was simply staring at a camera lens. So, I pretended the camera had a face and was really interested in what I had to say.

Of course, after the interview, I did what all perfectionists do. I “coulda shoulda woulda’d” myself like crazy all the way home. And for the last two days I’ve been thinking about all the things I might have said given more time or had I known what the questions would be. And then, last night, I remembered, “Oh! I can still do it! Right here on this blog.” So please take a look at the video clip (I enter the conversation around 6:13 and continue until the end) and then I’ll tell you the rest of the things I wanted to say.

I began my story explaining about how I had been a regular plastic-consuming American, taking double plastic bags at the grocery store and throwing away plastic water bottles, until the night I read the article and saw the photo that changed my life.  I described the dead albatross chick full of plastic pieces (not realizing that that very photo was being shown on the screen right next to me) and how in that moment I realized my life had to change.

At that point, Melissa Harris-Perry responded,

“So, I want to ask about that because part of what I thought was an extremely useful part, sort of the initial move towards encouraging, particularly Americans, but around the world, to think about environmental issues, across party lines and all of that, were wildlife images, the images as you point out here, of the albatross, or we just talked yesterday about the brown pelicans from the BP oil spill that have the oil on them, but I also wonder about how we then put a connection between the wildlife piece, and Majora and Raul, what we were just talking about around sort of humans and people and particularly young folks, so Majora, I just want you to weigh in a little bit and then I want to come back to you Beth about how do we connect these dots…?”

How do we connect the dots between animals and humans?  If the question had been directed to me, I would have said,

We are the albatross.

Albatross mothers fly out across the Pacific Ocean searching for food to feed their hungry babies and bring back bits of plastic instead.  The babies starve with bellies full of our discarded waste.

Human mothers feed their babies from plastic baby bottles and plastic baby dishes and utensils, unaware of the chemicals in the plastic that is leaching into their babies’ bodies, and the hormone-disrupting effects those chemicals have on their developing systems.

Breastfeeding mothers, hoping to give their babies the very best possible start in life, nourish their children with all the chemicals they themselves have stored in their bodies from a lifetime of exposure to flame retardants, pesticides, and the chemicals in plastics.

Zooplankton, the bottom of the ocean’s food web, ingest micro-plastic particles coated with toxic pollutants and pass those pollutants up the food chain to fish and bigger fish and finally humans.  And the cumulative effects are increased at every step along the chain until finally, we are ingesting those chemicals on our dinner plates.

Parents, trying to make a living to feed their families, live near and work in the petrochemical plants that manufacture the chemicals from which plastic is made.  In addition to a paycheck, those workers and their families are rewarded with disproportionately high incidences of rare cancers, respiratory illnesses, and reproductive disorders.   Don’t ask me which plastics are safe to eat or drink from.  All of them are made from chemicals that pollute the environment and harm the people who live in the areas where they are manufactured, whether those chemicals can leach out of your personal bottle or not.

And at the end of their lives, plastics either end up in the landfill or incinerator, still polluting the air and groundwater in predominantly poorer neighborhoods, or are shipped to China for “recycling,” where lack of environmental controls and worker safeguards create hazardous conditions for the workers overseas, also just trying to make a living to feed their families.

We are the albatross.  We’re just not as visible.  You don’t see images of human beings lying dead with plastic spilling out of their guts.  We die more quietly, with diseases that are harder to connect directly with any one toxic product or another.  We die gradually, from the slow accumulation of exposures to thousands of toxic chemicals over the course of our lifetimes.   And since it’s so hard to place the blame on one particular chemical or another, the industry is able to deny culpability for its role in polluting our bodies and the surrounding environment.

Back in 2007, when I witnessed the image of that dead albatross chick, the feeling that came over me was not simply sorrow for a fellow creature that had been killed by humans’ unwitting actions.  No, it was sorrow for all of us.  Somehow, I instinctively knew that there was no difference between that bird and myself.  Ignorance had killed it.  And now that I knew the truth, I had to do whatever I could to stop this tragic drama before it was too late.  How could I possibly do otherwise?

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I have to say after being on your FB page for awhile now, seeing you speak made me like you even more! You are optimistic and humble and you got your message across loud and clear. I’m glad you spoke up and told people it’s about starting with ourselves.


This about made me cry. Thanks for being so awesome. Keep on pushing!


Beth: So I wondered if you had researched bioplastics a bit, and wondered also if they might be a safe(r) alternative to the petrochemcal-plastic containers now being used? Since the ones in ued now are derived from fossil fuels, it seems as though any plant-derived plastics would be safer. Of course I understand that they should biodegrade quickly and completely and pose no threat to wildlife to be considered a sensible alternative to what we now have.

Beth Terry

I have researched bio-plastics as a matter of fact. And I have a whole section explaining bio-plastics in my book. There are different kinds with different pros and cons. The plant-derived plastics may have a lower carbon footprint, however, many of the crops used, like corn, are grown with heavy use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and come from genetically-modified organisms. And not all of the plant-derived plastics are actually biodegradable. And some “biodegradable” plastics are derived from fossil sources. It’s a complicated topic. I wrote about it some in my posts about various specific kinds of bio-plastic products. You… Read more »


***(sorry: I left my computer for a moment and it posted my unfinished thought on its own.) To continue with my post…99.9% of the hits would have stated that plastics are derived from fossil fuels, 10 years ago. Google it now, and one will be amazed at the mention of bioplastics–plastics made from the organic fats and polymers, etc., from plants and trees. Maybe they are (at least) a good intermediate answer to the problem, and if they are manufactured in a sustainable and safe process, and further, can be made to biodegrade quickly, may be partly, or completely, an… Read more »


I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated your input on the show, and I further enjoy your “We are the albatross” overview. Beginning right this minute, all of us who love the Earth and the creatures that inhabit the Earth, must become outspoken advocates for the environment–and wear it like a badge! Time is of the essence, since polluters spend enormous sums of money to influence legislation that allows them to continue polluting. If one were to google, “from what source is plastic derived”, I would guess that 99.9% of the

Beth Terry

Hi. Your message got cut off but I’m assuming you were going to write that most people don’t know where plastic comes from, and I think you are right. Most people probably just don’t even think about it.

Some dude

Great job Beth! You got your message across in a short amount of time and jumped into the conversation a few times very smooth and natural like. I’m glad some daytime TV watchers got to hear your story because they probably aren’t typically the ones reading our blog.


Excellent as usual! From Celia with Charlie Moore’s Algalita Research Fdn.


Once I finished crawling out of the wonderful “Rabbit Hole” on Sugar Wax. (will try it tonight) I watched the video clip and read your follow up notes and all the positive comments. MY HEART IS FULL!! So glad you will be facilitating the discussion/ Q&A after our screening of Bag It at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library (San Jose, CA) on May 22nd. The movie is brilliant but having you present to share your energy, knowledge and passion is going to make for one terrific evening. Can’t wait!- Cheers, Leslie


Cool stuff, pre-ordered your book.

Peggy Gilges

Thank you, Beth, for showing that even with all the constant marketing forced on us, once we learn the true costs of our lifestyles we can choose to live more conscientiously.


We are the albatross is a great way to put it. I’m going to remember that when talking to people. My close friends and family are not as hard to convince, I’m mainly just trying to drop non-overwhelming ideas that I have been trying to inspire them rather than discourage them with the upsettingness that is the state of all our chemical exposure, but when I talk to other people I will probably use that way of putting it. That, and talking about hormones and synthetic hormones and their effect on weight. Pretty much every girl wants to lose weight,… Read more »

Beth Terry

Yep. The weight issue will definitely get the attention of young women, won’t it? I don’t think I’ve blogged about it. I’ll add it to my every-growing “to-do” list.


I didn’t get the point of the clip…what was the host yammering on about, environmental justice? What did Beth’s segment have to do with it at all? I kept wondering both of those things while I watched the clip, until Beth, not the host, put two and two together, about how plastic harming other people linked to the social justice aspect. Is this a regular show on the environment? Because I thought it was kind of boring until Beth’s clip came on the screen. What was whole point of the conversation anyway? And why did the host pick Beth because… Read more »

Carmen Melton

Yes, it’s those connections that are so difficult for people to make. Like a toddler who’s world is very small & doesn’t yet understand how his behavior affects others, humanity is still still in its infancy because most people only live for themselves, not caring how every action ultimately comes back around. Most of us just don’t have the energy or comprehension to look past direct and immediate consequences.

Beth Terry

Thanks, Laura. I knew in advance that they would be talking about environmental justice, and I had actually written about that in a blog post after hearing a talk given by Van Jones, so I was familiar with the topic. He would have been a great guest too, wouldn’t he? But I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say until I was sitting in that chair listening to the conversation. And I wish, wish, wish I had said, “We are the albatross,” on national television, but it didn’t occur to me until I was on my way home.… Read more »

Joanna Stevenson Smith

It is mind-boggling about plastics,Omgoodness might as well fast frequently to free my body of toxic/poisonous plastics…


Great job!! You were amazing. I am a fan of yours from Tucson, Az. I was actually visiting the Bay Area this past weekend and could have sworn I saw you at the Temescal Farmer’s Market on Sunday…was it really you?

Beth Terry

I WAS there on Sunday. Did you see me eating a buckwheat crepe sloppily out of a LunchBots container with my fingers because I had forgotten my utensils and refused to take plastic ones? :-)


No, I didn’t! I was too busy contemplating whether I should approach you. If I see you again, I will be sure to stop and say hi. :)

Beth Terry



Beautifully said!

Carmen Melton

It’s so exciting to see you taking your message to a national audience!! I don’t watch much tv (never even heard of MH-P before now) but it’s precisely those who are inundated with typical media influence that most need your words:) So grateful for all you do!

Kay Pere

Congratulations on being selected for this interview!!! You did a fabulous job!

Beth Terry

Thanks, Kay!


I looked up this website immediately because of your show.

Beth Terry

Fantastic! Welcome. Make sure and check out the Plastic-Free Guide to get started:

Chelsea Gale

Brilliant, as always.


I watch MHP regularly, and that’s how I found this site (and added it to my RSS feed!) Beth, I thought you were VERY eloquent, and I was VERY VERY touched by your story. I’ve always been environmentally minded, but I’ve started to think differently about plastics, and I know I’m not the only one! I even shared what I saw with ladies at work, especially the visual of the ONE SINGLE grocery bag of your plastic from 2011. KUDOS!!!! You’re changing lives, and I think you’re fabulous!

Beth Terry

Thank you for helping to spread the word! Like I suggested to Cheryll above, check out the Plastic-Free Guide for a ton of suggestions in list form. And obviously, there is a whole lot more in the book. I’ve been compiling this for over 5 years!


Magnificent job! You should have been given a whole segment on your own. Next stop, Charlie Rose. ;-)


Beth – No regrets allowed! This is awesome – Home run! This is a perfect intro to the connection between EJ and sustainability! LOVE

Jay Sinha

Beth, you did a wonderful job. Good job on gracefully jumping in to get your points across too. I can totally relate as I often do the same thing, coming up with what I wish I had said a day later as it cycles through my head. BTW, has anyone ever told you you have very expressive eyebrows? There is always so much more to say, so thanks for letting us in on your perfect response.

Beth Terry

So all the plucking pain was worth it, I guess. ;-)


First of all, you rocked. You were authentic, believable, humble, passionate and compassionate. You are someone to listen to! Your eyes were great, too.

Now I have an art inspiration:
An image of a dead human skeleton whose belly is filled with plastic debris
An image of an albatross with a shaved head, a bottle of chemotherapy drugs in its wing , an IV drip and a poppy pin.

Because we are the albatross.

Beth Terry

Tracey, that is brilliant. Do you know an artist who can execute the idea? It would be perfect.


If I only had the time, a skeleton and an albatross lying around! Artists with the inclination are welcome to take up the idea…


I thought you were great. Personally, I don’t think Melissa connected the dots well about social justice and plastic.



Beth Terry

Smooches. :-)