When I learned that Beth Terry, blogger, activist, and author of Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, was coming to speak at a BookSmart Tulsa event earlier this month, my first impression was curiosity. I hadn’t heard of her before, but my interest piqued and I delved into her book and her blog, My Plastic-Free Life, and discovered that she is a true environmental hero. Here is someone who walks her talk and is sharing with the world everything she knows. Her journey is inspiring. But I really didn’t expect to be changed. I was a good little environmentalist, after all. I tried to avoid inordinate amounts of packaging, I recycled, I did my part. I was excited; I knew her plastic free message was one that people needed to hear, but I didn’t know I would be revolutionized.
Then, to top it all off, I found out a few days before the event that one of our local heroes was to co-present with Ms. Terry—Green Oklahoma’s own Lisa Sharp. Lisa and I had been corresponding via email for a few weeks prior, discussing our mutual desire to provide strong voices for Oklahoma’s environmental movement and brainstorming those possibilities. At that time, I knew little of her story. I only knew she was the editor-in-chief and creator of the eco-conscious website Green Oklahoma, and that I could learn a lot from how she’s managed it. The fact that she would also be speaking at this event, that I’d possibly even have a chance to meet this native Ada girl, whose efforts thus far had so impressed me, seemed like a strong touch of kismet.
I arrived at the University of Tulsa’s Allen Chapman Activity Center minutes before Beth Terry was scheduled to speak. It was a cold and rainy night, and I worried this would affect the turnout. Not allaying my fears in the least, I found a good parking spot and jumped a few puddles before climbing the concrete steps to the event hall. The place looked virtually empty. There were still a few tables occupied on the lower level, the remnants of some hands-on activities given earlier in the evening by Make: Tulsa on alternative uses for plastics and how they can be upcycled before they are recycled. These dedicated crafters and designers were happily chit-chatting away with each other, and each table was in various stages of disarray, telling me someone must’ve been here to make all this mess.
I walked up the steps leading to the presentation rooms alone. The upper landing was like the aftermath of a convention—the lights are on but almost everyone has gone home. A few people manned yet another table, this one stocked with copies of Beth Terry’s book. I looked expectantly at the closed doors across from the table, and the book table’s occupants nodded encouragingly. I walked in.
I was buoyed by the sight. The place wasn’t packed. What could I expect on a stormy Tuesday night? But there were people. A good double handful of people, enough to make a decent representation of Tulsa, and to pass along whatever they might learn tonight to the greater population. That is how it works, I’ve found. All it takes is just a few, and if the information catches, it spreads like so many dry summer wildfires.
Beth started talking with the energy of a girl perhaps half her age, and the ease of a catch-up conversation with an old friend. She told us a little about her life—she has no kids, she is married, and they have cats which they dearly love. She was an accountant. And she stumbled upon her mission to rid her life of plastic when she happened to learn about the plight of the Laysan albatross on Midway Island.
She showed us the picture. I’d seen it before, and I understood her pain. It was an image of a Laysan albatross chick who had died of malnutrition, and whose carcass showed the culprit—a gut so full of plastic trash, everything from intact bottle caps to plastic washers, that it literally had no room for actual food. The mother albatrosses see pieces of floating plastic in the ocean, mistake it for food, and bring it back to the island to feed their young. I knew this. I had heard the story before. But it never hurts to have a refresher course.
I should take that back. It does hurt. It hurts a lot. It hurts your heart and your conscience and your logical mind. As well it should. This is our mess, after all.
And then she said something else about Midway Island… something I might have known but had since forgotten. This island, halfway between California and Japan (most likely how it got its name), is thousands, and I mean thousands, of miles away from civilization of any kind. The island is totally secluded. This is how far our reach, how vast our destruction. All from the simple act of throwing it away. Because, as Beth Terry will tell you, as she learned in her own shock-to-the-system painful lesson, there is no such thing as away.
From this moment, Beth started analyzing her life and how she could make a difference. She set out to determine just how much plastic she threw away on a regular basis and how much of that could be cut back. She was very analytical with it all. She knew that, in order to get the real data she needed, she would have to be dispassionate. So she created charts and graphs. She kept track of all her plastic waste, changing nothing at first, just so she would know, with eyes wide open, what her impact on the planet had been. And then she started cutting back.
This part of the lecture was the fun part, the solutions. Because we need solutions, if we are to realize the kind of destruction for which we are responsible and not go mad with guilt. We need to be able to stop what we’re doing and to do something to fix the problem. Guilt solves nothing, past the initial shock to wake us up to our own shortcomings.
She talked about recycling and its advantages and pitfalls. We Tulsans were feeling pretty proud at this point, because our city had recently started a comprehensive curbside recycling program. City officials told us all the plastics were now recyclable, everything from 1s to 7s. Milk jugs? Toss it in. Bottle caps? They’d take those. Styrofoam? We were good to go. This was our dream come true. Finally, we were on the map of cities who offered all-encompassing, user-friendly curbside recycling for every resident within city limits. Even I, an apartment dweller, had been taking advantage of it, sending all my odd plastics and other recyclables to my boyfriend’s house for curbside pickup. (This has the added advantage of getting him to be more diligent with his own recycling efforts.)
And then Beth Terry dropped the bomb. She makes it a habit, when she comes to speak in different towns along her way, to contact the local recyclers to see how they run their operation. She contacted ours. And was told flat out that only the traditional numbers 1 and 2 plastics are actually being recycled. A big machine scans all of them and can sort out the recyclables from the rest. And what about the rest? Plastics numbered 3 – 7 are incinerated. You could almost hear the jaws of the entire audience drop. You could hear several shocked gasps and involuntary what’s puncture the air.
Now, she said, she was reassured that all this plastic burning was generating energy for the city’s use. But you could sense this concept didn’t hold much water for the listening audience. How could burning plastic be good for our environment? Wouldn’t there be toxic fumes and smoke from such a process? No one in the room knew for sure.
However, recycling is still important, when the items are recycled, and this was the point where she gave Lisa Sharp the floor.
Lisa, I quickly learned, was directly involved in implementing a curbside recycling program in her own home town of Ada. I was impressed. Environmental responsibility is eyed with a certain amount of suspicion in our Red state, and it must have been an almost Herculean task to get such a concept to pass muster in a small town like Ada, where views are likely to be even less progressive than those in Oklahoma’s larger cities. It took Tulsa a long time to get a program even remotely comprehensive, in Tulsa, the state’s second largest city.
From there I learned that Lisa, this brave, young, soft-spoken woman, who must have had one heck of a great upbringing, has been working on changing the practices of the local concrete plant, who has been fined multiple times by the EPA for emissions violations over the past several years. She told [us] of friends being diagnosed with cancer and respiratory problems. And she spoke of the difficulty in working against the prevailing attitude of the town—leave the cement plant alone, they’re one of our biggest employers. This is what happens when a big corporation takes advantage of a small town. The town becomes dependent on the company for its livelihood, and then the company can, almost literally, get away with murder. Sometimes public resistance to holding the town’s primary breadwinner accountable seems insurmountable, even when there is clear evidence the alternative is killing them.
The two, Beth and Lisa, segued into more upbeat conversation—companies Beth has convinced to find plastic-free packaging alternatives, the story of Lisa telling Beth about a glass reusable straw from the company GlassDharma, and a multitude of plastic alternatives Beth has found along her journey. For all the discouraging and even terrifying facts revealed in our time with these two veteran environmentalists, there was a lot of hope and a lot of laughter. My fellow Tulsans asked insightful questions and even shared some of their own solutions for things we can do here at home to reduce our plastic waste.
I came home at the end of the evening to a stack beside my sink of “reusable” plastic Quik Trip cups. I noticed all the countless food items I buy—even the local organic ones—all wrapped or contained in plastic, much of it non-recyclable. And of course, everything I do throw away is wrapped up in a big plastic bag, only to be sent off to a landfill, where the wind can carry what doesn’t simply sit there out to sea.
I also thought about our shiny new curbside recycling program. I don’t know how I feel about this “plastic to energy” concept. It seems there’s a lot of room for error there, and it is going to take some in depth research to truly understand what is happening to the trash in this town. But I’m glad Beth came. I’m glad she told us. Our recycling program is still young, and there may yet be something we can do to keep it honest. At least I know I am not alone with this newfound information. There is power in numbers, and there is now a big handful of Tulsans ready to spread the word and make a change.
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About the Author
Angela Bushong is an office grunt by day, mad word-slinger by night. An avid tree-hugger and lover of all life forms, she is known to write on any number of topics from sustainable living to how best to avoid becoming a slave to your cat. She also authors the blog, The Green Country Guardian. When not writing to save the planet, she can be found in the confines of her Tulsa apartment mothering, reading, fire-escape gardening, rebelling against our corrupt food system from the front lines of her tiny kitchen, and fighting for equal rights with her own resident cats. Negotiations are ongoing.