How can I not?

2 days ago I attended a conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, on plastic litter. During this conference an Icelandic writer, Hildur Knútsdóttir, gave a pretty emotive talk on individual responsibility when it comes to ‘the plastic problem’. She spoke about an inner problem that she often faces, which I find easy to relate to: how on earth can one continually find the energy and will to fight such a huge problem that your own actions are probably insignificant in making a change?

This feeling of insignificance has occurred to me before; both at home in the UK and abroad. On many beach walks I will return with buckets/bags full of litter that I’ve picked up. Anyone who has had to wait for me dawdling behind scanning the tide line will vouch for this! Sometimes I leave the beach with a sense of satisfaction. There wasn’t too much litter to start with, and therefore I feel like I may genuinely have contributed to cleaning up. I have, perhaps, helped a little with restoring the beaches that I feel proud to call local to their former, pre-plastic age glory (at least until the next falling tide).

Other times, I simply feel dwarfed by the problem. There is just so much rubbish that you can’t take one step without seeing multiple pieces of plastic, from bits of fishing net to cigarette lighters, bottle tops to crisp packets – the list goes on. There is too much for me to collect on my own, and the dogs need some exercise, so I have to move on with my walk. I still collect litter; however I am ‘ignoring’ the majority of it, hoping that there will be an organised beach clean to make a bigger dent than I just did.

I recently travelled to Morocco, and stayed in a walled town on the coast called Essaouira. It is a beautiful city, with white washed walls and cobbled streets lined with stores selling all things Moroccan. What struck us during our stay, however, was the plastic litter. Throughout the town, there is hardly a rubbish bin in sight. Although I’m sure we must have missed some, we spotted two single rubbish bins during the whole trip – both overflowing onto the street. Beyond the town’s sea wall, litter accumulates in every crevice of the reef-like rocky shore, and defines the tide lines on the beach. As I’m sure is the case for many other places, there was litter everywhere you look, whole plastic containers, flip flops, carrier bags, again – the list goes on. And, again, this feeling of insignificance creeps back up.

As a researcher investigating plastic litter in the Arctic, and its effects on seabirds, I hope that I may be chipping away at ‘the plastic problem’. However, as an individual, how can I hope to make any significant difference?

The answer, as Hildur Knútsdóttir so succinctly put it, is: how can I not? As an individual throughout my daily life, how can I not take the small actions that reduce my personal impact on ‘the plastic problem’ as a whole? I am glad that I heard Hildur speak, because she has given me the words that explain why I am compelled to pick up litter when I visit the beach, and take my ‘bag for life’ to the supermarket when I do my shopping, or somehow precariously balance my purchased items in my arms if I forget my bag. To borrow Hildur’s final words, I do these things because the alternative, for me, is not really an alternative at all.

On our last day in Morocco, we were buying a few final gifts for family back home. After being nearly forced to take a carrier bag in every shop we had previously been to, despite me getting out my cotton bag to use, we finally met a shop-owner who was the exception to this trend. At his cluttered shop selling intricate wooden boxes, he proudly showed us all of his material bags that he uses for grocery shopping, and told us of shocked green-grocers when he refuses carrier bags, and instead puts his avocados and tomatoes together in a reusable bag. The feeling of insignificance has not stopped him!

3 thoughts on “How can I not?

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