plastic pollution

For an illustrated version, see The Environmentor Vol 8 No 1 pp15-16.

Plastics: There is no 'away'.

Story: “Rustle and Shelley” by Jenni Cargill-Strong, used with permission.

Rustle just wanted to be useful.

He started out as a handful of nurdles: beads of plastic resin on their way from the petroleum refinery to the factory where they would be melted and shaped into many different things. “Maybe I'll be made into a measuring cup! Or a lawn chair! Or a toy!” Rustle dreamed.

But when he and his resin friends came out the far end of the factory, they found that they had been rolled and cut into plastic grocery sacks. “Well, that's still useful. We will help a family carry home their shopping!”

Indeed, soon Rustle was pulled off the pile of sacks, shaken open, and filled with half a gallon of milk, a box of strawberries, and a carton of cornflakes. “Yum, breakfast!' said Rustle. A family carried Rustle to their car and drove him home. However, once they had unloaded their groceries, they just crumpled Rustle up and tossed him in the trash. “Don't I get to be useful any more?” wailed Rustle. But nobody heard him. Soon he got covered with coffee grounds and dinner scraps. Yuck.

On trash-collection day, Rustle rode to the city landfill. “Yay, daylight again!” he cried when the truck dumped him out. The wind blew the coffee grounds off of him, and lifted him into the air. “Whoopee, I'm flying!” – until he caught in the branches of a tree. “What a great view! I can see for miles.”

This was fun until a rainstorm blew him out of the tree into a creek, where the water caught in his corners and carried him to a river. “I'm swimming!” There the water was dirty and full of other pieces of trash, but he enjoyed seeing the fish and the bottoms of boats. Finally they reached the ocean.

That's where Rustle met Shelley. 

Shelley was a big sea turtle who had just come from the shore where she had laid her eggs in the sand. Now she was hungry. She saw what she thought was a big white jellyfish and eagerly chomped it down. But it was Rustle!

Now Rustle was stuck inside Shelley. She couldn't digest his plastic, and he blocked her stomach so that she couldn't eat more food! Poor Shelley got weaker and weaker.

At last she became too weak to swim, and could only drag herself back onto the beach where she had laid her eggs. Fortunately this spot was protected by park rangers, who found the sick sea turtle. They carried Shelley to a veterinarian.

This poor turtle is stuffed full of plastic! I'll have to operate.” They turned Shelley on her back, very carefully anesthetized her, and cut through her plastron (turtle's chest plate). The vet removed several pounds of plastic – including what was left of Rustle. “I only wanted to be useful,” Rustle mourned.

Indeed, by the time Shelley recovered and could go back to sea (and her eggs had all hatched), the park rangers found a use for Rustle. They made a traveling exhibit teaching about how dangerous discarded plastic things could be to wildlife. It also showed how to discard plastic sacks safely if there was no place to recycle them: tie them in knots first, so that they can't blow away or fill with water.

Rustle was the star of the exhibit! He was useful after all.

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Fact Tale: There is no “away”

Plastic is wonderful stuff and we have bajillion important and convenient uses for it. But when we use something once and then throw it out, it doesn't vanish. It has to go somewhere. 

Plastic trash tossed from car windows litters our roadsides and catches in trees. Carelessly discarded containers blow out of bins across parks and into yards. Compared with paper, which can eventually break down, plastic litter remains for decades and may last hundreds of years. Sixpack rings can strangle animals; fishing line and cassette tape can entrap them. And plastics that wash into our creeks, to our rivers, can wind up in the ocean.

Sometimes wildlife mistake bits of plastic for food, but they can't digest it and it blocks their innards until they starve. Birds and land animals are as susceptible as Shelley the sea turtle.

 

Until Jan 6 2020, the Tulsa Zoo is featuring a special exhibit “Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea” of larger-than-life aquatic creatures constructed from actual plastic trash that washed onto West Coast beaches https://tulsazoo.org/washed-ashore-comes-to-the-tulsa-zoo/As we marvel at this re-use of old flipflop sandals, CD cases, straws, cups, and sacks, we are reminded that everything we discard will end up somewhere! 

 

What can we do to keep wildlife safe from our plastic trash? Discuss how to recycle plastic bags: some area stores have bins. If a bag must be trashed, show how to tie it in knots so that it won’t blow away. 

How can we produce less plastic trash? During or after the story, we can discuss with listeners the many ways we can re-use plastic grocery bags. But we should also urge using cloth bags instead. (I always carry nylon bags tucked up small in my purse, for times when I don’t have a canvas one along.)

Discuss other re-usable alternatives, especially for single-use items such as water bottles, fast-food containers, cups & lids, drinking straws.

We can also point out that plastic is made from petroleum, which took hundreds of millions of years to form. We may use it for a few minutes, then throw it away-- where it will take hundreds of years to decay. By contrast, paper sacks are made from trees that regrow in a few decades, and discarded paper can break down to compost.

 

Story souce notes:

Jenni Cargill-Strong, Australian environmental activist and storyteller, has kindly given us permission to retell her original story “Rustle and Shelley.” I have compressed it for this text. Watch her tell it in full https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF1xaPb2Nqo  and see how she uses a plastic grocery sack to illustrate Rustle’s rustling noise and adventures.