Styrofoam along the LA River reflects the state of the earth and plastic pollution

I was recently in Los Angeles scouting sites for an upcoming project along the LA River. My last stop was Golden Shore Marine Biological Reserve to participate in Friends of the Los Angeles River’s annual clean up. While the majority of volunteers collecting debris gathered on the protected wetland side; I opted for the rocky terrain running along the river. Scaling down the rocks toward the water, I stopped at a sizable gap, crouched down and began to collect piece after piece of Styrofoam. The more I dug the more was exposed. Quickly a quandary arose, do I go for large handfuls and include the natural debris (leaves, reeds and sticks) the Styrofoam is intertwined in? Do I just go after larger pieces? I spent about 20 minutes at this one 12x12 inch nook and, minus a fairly intact cup, a few straws and a Visine bottle, I seemingly did not make a dent here.

It occurred to me that this small opening in the rocks is an example of how deeply plastics are woven into the fabric of society and have infiltrated the farthest corners of the earth. I imaged how a single Styrofoam nurdle could easily be mistaken for food by the snail perched here. I envisioned the plastic gathered in each ocean’s gyres, which in the Pacific is estimated to be three times the size of Texas. What’s convenient? Who decides? Who is responsible? At what point does what has been convenient become not so convenient any more? These are questions I’ve been asking in my solo Precipice and at this moment they crashed down.

Depression started setting in and I shared my bag of collections with a friend who had graciously accompanied me on this Saturday morning and had already collected 3 times my volume. “Large suction vacuums would be a way to get all this out,” he speculated. This made me think about the large scale, technical solutions that have come forward including Boyan Slat’s solution for removing plastic pollution from the oceans and Toby McCartney’s repurposing of plastics for road material. It also made me think about who had used the items, to what end, for how long, and how they ended up here.

I’ve often heard the argument that given the scale of the problem, what people do as individuals has little impact. Yet it is individual action that makes a difference. And a next larger step won’t be taken without a first smaller step. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Metric Tons of plastic waste has been generated, 9% of it recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% sent to landfill or lost in the environment.  If there wasn’t a consumer market for these products, this mass quantity wouldn’t even have been created. But here we are, deep in, but with the ability to take steps.

Individuals collectively create solutions on all fronts. Our current quandary requires a multi-tiered approach that includes engineering, political and legal action, and changes in behavior. All of these require individuals to act. Change is not esoteric. It means making a choice to do things differently. And we all have the ability to make some choices and alter what we do. Let’s take a step.