The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 19, 2013

The Beauty of Picking up Plastic

2013-05-18-Damon-Slough-01Dr. Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres, an organization dedicated to researching ocean plastic pollution, has said, “If you want to clean the gyre, clean your beach.” He meant it literally, since “if we stop adding more plastic to the ocean, in time the gyres will kick out the plastic pollution they currently hold.”  But I choose to think of the statement metaphorically.  Spending a morning cleaning plastic from a beach or river bank or roadway doesn’t just remove a fraction of plastic trash from the environment, it heightens our personal awareness of the problem and gets us in touch with the physical reality of plastic pollution — both beautiful and terrible.  We understand how vast the problem is compared to our tiny efforts at mitigation.  Sure, we might feel overwhelmed.  But hopefully, the exercise can our revitalize our commitment to reducing plastic at the source.

Yesterday Morning at Damon Slough

If I want to see plastic pollution, I don’t have to travel all the way to Midway Island or even up the coast to Kehoe Beach.  I can just jump on BART and ride a few miles south to Oakland’s Damon Slough, one of Save the Bay’s Top Five Trash Hot Spots year after year, which is what I did yesterday morning with other members of Green Sangha.  Armed with a pair of hemp gardening gloves (to avoid the disposable plastic gloves I knew would be provided to us by the park service) and my good intentions, I set off down the shoreline to pick up trash — and take a lot of pictures. (Click on pictures to see larger versions.)

From a distance, the area looks pretty clean, right?




Until you look closely at your feet and notice how plastic has infiltrated seaweed so closely that it’s hard to tell anymore what is natural and what is man made.






Signs of what humans have done naturally for millennia, preserved in plastic.


The evidence of how we both enjoy and destroy ourselves.




Plastic straws camouflaged to match the surrounding sticks.  I’m both amazed and aghast.




No plastic here?




Not so fast!




What about here?


Look more closely…




Turn over handfuls of twigs, leaves, sand, and earth.  You won’t find an inch without some kind of plastic.




Some of the stuff flaunts itself brazenly in the morning sun.  The bright colors entice me despite all I’ve learned about plastic and its drawbacks.  I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt… but the “treasure” is a lie.








It dares me to laugh in spite of myself…


Other bits seek shelter in cracks and crevices…






In return, living creatures attempt to make plastic their home.


Some of these things have been here so long, they crumble in your hand when you try to remove them… reminding us that plastic never goes away, it just breaks apart into smaller and smaller pieces.


Alison Vogel, a Green Sangha member, sent out an email the evening before our Damon Slough outing to encourage people to come.  Her words made me cry.  Not being one to hoard my tears, I thought I would share some of her email with you.

This shoreline we are cleaning up on Saturday is a beautiful part of the East Bay Regional Parks, with gorgeous views of the Bay, San Francisco and Mt. Tamalpais. And it’s terribly polluted with empty alcohol bottles, plastic cigar holders, crumbling Styrofoam that breaks into little fish egg size balls that get mistaken for food, plastic Halloween size candy wrappers by the hundreds, plastic bags, plastic toys, tons of little broken bits of plastic….and worst of all….lots of syringes. We found 8 last time in just two hours. There is no paid staff to get out there and clean this stuff up.
This area is home to hundreds of birds.
Last time I got to see an incredibly gorgeous Snowy Egret through my friend’s binoculars. Something I had never seen up close like that, or maybe ever for that matter. Not that I recall. It was so majestic looking, standing on one leg to conserve energy with it’s fluffy white feathers blowing in the wind. I was filled with a mixture of awe and respect and amazement, along with shame for our ignorance, disconnect and destruction as a species, and then more gratitude, inspiration and hope that all of us cared enough to be cleaning this stuff up! This is their home and ours too. Though they live in harmony in a closed loop that keeps it in balance, we with our “higher” consciousness have not yet evolved in a way that is non harming. It’s always deeply puzzling to me that the most intelligent species, other than perhaps dolphins and whales, have come to this place in history and our Earth, our only home, is in such a crisis.
It comes up a lot, in a waxing and waning sort of manner, “What is the point of my existence here? How can I make this life mean something?” And it always comes back to selfless service. Just get out there and do something that needs doing that will bring peace, joy, happiness or simply less suffering for others.
It’s so simple, so easy, so rewarding and the options unlimited.

Last night, walking to dinner with Michael, I picked up a smashed blue dental floss container and several plastic Easter eggs that were lying in the gutter.  What will you pick up the next time you leave your house?  What will you notice?  And how will you let it change you?

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Janice Haney
10 years ago

Hi everyone! Picking up plastic is the great ides for making our planet a little bit cleaner. Those who suppose that one person can’t do anything may read this . To prove this fact let me show you the opposite thing. See how much waste does one person leave. So don’t stay indifferent and make our planet better!

10 years ago

I thought how living on the East Coast I could post such similar pictures. It is really sad what man is doing to the earth. Thanks to all the special people who helped clean up with you Beth. Sadly I wonder if you all went out next week how much new plastic waste would be there. greg

Lara S
10 years ago

What a beautiful and touching post. Thank you so much.

Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator
10 years ago
Reply to  Lara S

Glad you enjoyed this post! Thank you for reading and hopefully you share this post with others so more people can see first hand how plastics and other pieces of discarded trash we use end up polluting the environment.

10 years ago

Hi, I just came across this blog today and am excited about the ideas here. Thanks for sharing this particular post. When walking I often pick up plastic and trash, and after reading this post I have a couple questions about the best way to go about it. What type of bag or container did you use to hold the trash you collected, or what type would you recommend? Also, what is the best way to dispose of any non-recyclable plastics collected? Are there alternatives to putting them in the regular landfill trash?

Beth Terry
10 years ago
Reply to  Stace

We actually used big plastic bags that were provided by the park department. That is what our group was required to use. If I were to do it on my own, I would probably just bring a big reusable tub and dispose of the non-recyclable contents in the regular trash bin. I don’t know of a better way to deal with them. I figure, it’s better than having them loose in the environment. And instead of worrying about what to do with that stuff, I just redouble my efforts to encourage people to reduce the amount they consume in the first place.

10 years ago
Reply to  Beth Terry

Beth Terry Even if you are required to use plastic bags, you can still empty their contents into the regular trash bin. — Just a possibility I thought of without knowing the full context.

Beth Terry
10 years ago

I don’t think they want this stuff in the regular trash because of things like syringes and other potentially hazardous items.

10 years ago
Reply to  Beth Terry

Thanks for the information. What you shared challenges me to be more intentional about encouraging people to use/consume less and consider where their waste goes.

Allison Vogel
10 years ago

What a beautiful essay! It really depicts our experience that day and is so informative and moving. I agree with what you write about how doing this kind of exercise really connects one to the deeper issues we create with our daily plastic usage, and helps one really understand how pervasive it is, and harmful to innocent widlife. To all life. You really can’t get past an inch of this shoreline without finding more plastic. It could feel overwhelming, but each time I go there, I see how much of a difference we make, and how much bonding happens within the group; the amazing positive energy it creates. For me it’s pretty intoxicating, all the love that is generated by doing what seems insurmountable. And that there are others who deeply care and feel uplifted by helping. It’s such a high and I can’t wait for the next one. I so appreciate all the awareness you bring to the world!

Anastacia Andrade
10 years ago

i collect cig ends when we are in the sandy area of the playground. i have a big 5gal bucket with a sign on it and it gets people talking to me about the trash. some help, some just thank me and some just make commnets

Autumn Dann
10 years ago


Autumn Dann
10 years ago

i’m a butt collector.

Anastacia Andrade
10 years ago

how about explaining a condom to a 6yo! i see them around our park a lot

Hana Kralova
10 years ago

I always pick up garbage when walking with my kids…often end up with a few beer bottles or cans in the stroller :O). Only a few times I had to explain myself that I really did not drink it.

Beth Terry
10 years ago

Apparently so. Ewwww.

Christell Stocks
10 years ago

Yesterday my husband and I picked a whole bag with trash at the National River Cleanup Day. It feels so good to do something for our Nature!

Anastacia Andrade
10 years ago

my daily events. picking up plastic trash. i just picked up a 1/2 empty container-with some greenish glowing goo. people really put that stuff to their mouth and suck it down?

Beth Terry
10 years ago

cc Allison Vogel Elizabeth McKee Little Stuart Moody

10 years ago

There’s a strange beauty to some plastic waste as you say, but it’s so insidious. Your examples of how plastic has almost become integrated into the seaweed are scary and sobering.

I am a volunteer with a local river protection charity and I pick litter from one stretch of the river every week.

10 years ago

I’ve been discovering lately that the reason that people don’t know our reason for being here is that we have been taught to focus on ourselves and our (often) petty wants.

If you realize that everything you do has an impact (however small) on everything and everyone around you and that your own well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of everything and everyone around you, then what your purpose is becomes obvious. But let me say it anyway. Your purpose is to live in a way that contributes to the well-being of everyone and everything so that you may be well yourself.

Joyfully Green
10 years ago

Beth, thank you. This is one of your very best posts. I was also moved by Alison Vogel’s wise words. So often as environmentalists, I think we come upon the fed-up feeling of “Does it even really matter if I do this one little thing when the problems are so huge?” You and Alison have answered that question with a resounding YES, it does matter–every single step forward matters. I’m bookmarking this post for the next time I need reminding. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Marea Foster
10 years ago

Lovely post. I have just come back from the beach this morning, and took a friend for the first time. We both had a great time searching for plastic bits & pieces. Its a fabulous way to spend your time, always finding something to be delighted by in nature, be it the waves, the birds the shells, and so on. I know the plastic will keep on coming but I believe its worth picking it up and removing it from harm’s way.

Sometimes I think, I wonder how long this has been here. The consoling thing for me is that I know most of it wasn’t here when I was a child. We just didn’t have these plastic things. It was rare. We should be able to reverse what has happened, after all we supposedly such a clever species, but perhaps not so clever if we drown in our own plastic sea.

10 years ago

Way to go! There is a canal near my place with signs near the bridges over it saying NO LITTERING immediately behind which is loads of litter. I grab some paper grocery bags and go do what you did, dividing things into what is recyclable and what is not. As you found, stuff can be there for years before being collected – I really prize finding ancient litter, because it makes me proud…I’m able to say to myself – of all the thousands of human beings that pass this way, I am the one and only representative of my species that is picking this up. It’s a sad statement, but I have to take a little pride in the act.

Thinking long term – in a million years, or maybe only 100,000, some microbes will have evolved to eat plastics and will they have a banquet! The down side for them will be that humanity will be long gone – hence – no new plastic being made for them to eat! Yes, it’s a cruel scenario but nature can be cruel. Also, with us gone, perhaps porpoises or whales will be making a bid to get up on land and see if their intelligence can do better than ours has.