While visiting Midway with the Oceanic Society, there was one past-time everyone enthusiastically participated in: beach combing.
There wasn't much of a choice. The island is littered with an incredible amount of plastic debris, almost none of which actually originated from the island but rather washed up on shore after floating in the Pacific ocean for who knows how long.
Walking around and finding tons (literally) of household items, fishing gear, and toys it occurred to me that Midway is kind of like a giant Lost & Found. While many plastic pieces are small and turn the white sands of the beaches into a rainbow-speckled mess, many pieces are still identifiable. And the bits and pieces are everywhere, even in the nests of albatross chicks, ending up here most likely because a parent brought it back as food for either its current or past chicks.
So what is to be done about getting all this junk off of Midway? Well, the most basic solution is that we take ownership of what we've contributed to this trash pile. What plastic is yours? Do you recognize any of these things?
Could that be the hair brush you tossed when some of the bristles broke? Many things that are thrown "away" end up in the ocean, and "away" ends up being not the local landfill but a beach or waterway. Maybe that's your toothbrush? Or did you drop that plastic lighter? An incredible number of plastic lighters end up in albatross stomachs because they think they're squid. Maybe you should claim your plastic lighter quickly, or better yet, buy a refillable one.
Did you loose a shoe? It's here on Midway! You can pick it up from the beach and you'll have your pair of running shoes mated once again.
Do you recognize this broom as yours? Seems it somehow ended up washed up on Midway.
I know someone is missing this light bulb. It made it all the way from your house to the middle of the pacific ocean, where it somehow managed to get over the emergent coral reef intact, and wash up on the beach. I'm sure you want this miracle bulb back!
How about that missing piece to your board game? This little pig has traveled far and wide, and I'm sure you need it back.
In all seriousness, the problem of plastic is huge. Almost unfathomably huge. To know that this tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific ocean is receiving as much waste on its shores as a beach in a more densely inhabited part of the world may receive, is to know that the problem truly is global. There is practically no part of the world where our plastic junk hasn't marred in some way.
Taking ownership of our things -- thinking about where it may end up and taking responsibility for that -- is the root solution to the problem. It isn't about finding new forms of plastic that degrade, nor is it about cleaning up what is already out there which is essentially an impossible task. It is about stopping the flow at the source: Us.
The next time you throw something out, think about where it will end up. There is a real possibility it could end up in the belly of an endangered species or washed up on the shore of what once was a paradise.
If you'd like to take part in an expedition to Midway or other atolls, check out the trips offered by the conservation group Oceanic Society. It's ecotourism at its best!