It is 7:30 a.m. on a sunny spring day. Bodhi the dog is walking with me along Bandon Beach, one of Oregon’s most beautiful coastlines. It is pristine. The air is filled with that wonderful water energy that happens around massive bodies of water. I’m sort of surprised that we are the only ones on the beach.
Climbing around one of the mammoth rocks that pop up here and there, we spot a lone photographer. He is clearly professional, surrounded by equipment that probably cost more than my house. We watch his slow, exacting movements as he sets up his equipment. Then he just stares out at the ocean. I join him, trying to figure out what he’s watching for. The sun has already risen. No surfers are out this morning, or any dolphins, whales, or sea lions. Suddenly I figure it out. He’s watching for trash. A lot of it has been floating onto the beach lately, so much that it’s been in the news. It can be measured in tons.
In the same moment, I realize that, standing there, I’ve stepped into a modern-day koan: “How can I save the ocean?” Here is the problem staring me in the face, smack in the middle of Bandon Beach. I can’t avoid it. I can’t pretend that I don’t know that less than 7 percent of the 200 billion pounds of plastic we all use gets recycled. I can’t pretend it isn’t killing marine animals, especially turtles, by entangling them. I can’t pretend that countless fish and birds don’t confuse plastic debris for food, only to be poisoned. A plastic gyre the size of the state of Texas is growing by the minute somewhere in the Pacific.
The question troubles me and follows me home. It seems so huge. And yet, life’s big questions have always been just that: big. The Buddha never backed away from them, and he never let his followers back away, either, instead admonishing them to trust themselves to be their own lamps. They would know what to do. This is what “right action” means, after all.
I think about how others have answered this question. The artist Pharrell Williams, for example, is developing a clothing line that features jeans made from recycled plastic reclaimed from the oceans. His company buys PET bottles collected from marine debris organizations and recycling companies and transforms them into the fabric used for the jeans.
And there are many nonprofits aimed at saving big water. Just one, Washed Ashore, uses marine debris to create large-scale sculptures of threatened sea life. So far it has created fish, seals, turtles, reefs, and more. Mostly through volunteer efforts it has managed to transform more than four tons of plastic into art supplies for everyone from grade school kids to retirees.
Laudable efforts all, but I just have me.
Days later, as I’m thinking about this and how koans can be responded to only in the “right now,” ideas start to bubble up. I realize that my job is to work to get plastics out of my life as much as I can without driving everyone around me crazy. Can I do that? Two partial solutions surface. I can use cloth rags to pick up after Bodhi on our walks. After a couple of not very successful tries, I discover a simple solution of a doubled-over cotton cloth that is slightly bigger than a hand. Shaped like a triangle, it works perfectly—although I still cover my bases with a good handwashing afterward. And while I’m noticing that nobody else is leaping up to join me here, I’m not hearing any complaints.
A second idea surfaces. We are recycling fools here at the hermitage. Most of what we don’t recycle goes into the compost pile. Is there any reason we can’t use old pillowcases for the under-the-sink trashcan? It turns out that the answer is no. Old pillowcases make perfect trash bags and can be used over and over and over, keeping them out of landfills as well.
I’m guessing that there are more ideas to come. If not, I’ll head back to Bandon Beach for a date with the ocean. That should trigger lots more.
The author of Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Geri Larkin is spending the summer obsessing about plastic and how to use less of it.