Nature Column 09.24

The sentence I just wrote is short. Succinct, even. It is also sad but true in the most clichéed of ways. When it comes time for the history of our time to be shared, it will be simple. We trashed the world. We got so caught up in having more we forgot what it was like to live on less. We forgot what our grandparents taught us about saving and making do. We looked for the new and were all too happy to say, “out with the old” as we tossed barely worn things into the rubbish.

The statistics for how much trash a single American can generate in a week are embarrassing. We throw out almost half the food we buy. Many people throw out more. Remember when your family had a few treasured holiday decorations? Now, many people have multiple trees and buy all-new decorations every year, and not just for the winter holidays. Remember when a Halloween decoration was a jack-o-lantern? And just one, carved with a kitchen knife.

These are just a few examples. I’m not going to even discuss clothing except to say remember when walk-in closets weren’t a thing? I know. I’m a dinosaur.

I grew up with a grandmother who had survived the Depression by scrimping, saving, and doing it herself. She could sew, cook, repair things, mend, garden, and put food by. She saved wrapping paper, ribbon, string, rubber bands, cloth scraps and anything else she thought might come in handy. Every week she had less than one small bag of trash. One. All food scraps went to the pets or to compost and no food went to waste. She used everything.

My mother was poor and followed her mother’s advice. She bought us clothes we’d grow into, hemmed and taken in around the waist in ways that could easily be undone as we grew older and taller. You get the picture, and if you’re of a certain age, you probably have similar stories.

So, what does this all have to do with nature? Everything. All that we toss out doesn’t magically disappear. It goes somewhere else. Here on the Cape our trash is taken away in big metal bins by truck and by train. A small proportion gets recycled but if you read or watch the news, you know that is a fantasy many of us hoped was true. Most doesn’t qualify for the recycling towns get paid for, so it all just goes into the trash. And where does that trash go? I hate to break it to you, but there’s no magic island where it turns into fairy dust. It either gets burned or dumped somewhere, often into the sea. And, there are islands, they just aren’t magic. They are trash islands. Most are near cities, and someone decided long ago they had no better purpose than to hold our garbage. They are literally covered with refuse.

Nature doesn’t have trash. Everything gets used, including all animal waste and all dead plants and creatures. Everything is recycled. Many ancient cultures are studied through their artifacts but in some cases, those aren’t available because they decomposed over time. Nature doesn’t have factories, although one could argue she does have an economy. Nothing is wasted, including waste, which fertilizes new life as it fades away to its most basic forms.

The problem is our trash is taking over natural places at an alarming rate. Tiny particles of plastic are being found in every environment in every corner of the earth and sea. The fish you eat, the water you drink, the garden produce, the so-called organic foods, all have a tiny amount of plastic because it is so prevalent it is in everything, including the dirt.

This past weekend I was part of something called Coast Sweep, which was an international cleanup event targeting coastal areas. I participated at Sandy Neck and with my partner in cleanup went as far down the beach as his old Honda Pilot could take us, to trail 6. From there we walked into the marsh area and found an astounding amount of trash.

If you visit Sandy Neck, you know it is a pretty clean beach. You almost never see trash or litter hanging around as the staff keeps it picked up every single day. As we drove down the beach we stopped to pick up some deflated Mylar balloons with messages such as “I love you!” and “Happy Birthday!” peeling off them. Most people know by now that balloons are terrible things for the environment. Some animals and birds think they’re food and others get caught in the ribbons and strings. The results of either of those things aren’t pretty.

As we got to our destination, it looked very free of litter. And mostly, it was, until we followed the wrack line. Plastics, fishing ropes, shotgun shells, straws, tampon applicators, Tiparillo filter mouthpieces, cups, spoons, bottle caps, and the list goes on and on. All of these things were plastic, and some were quite small, easy for birds or animals to ingest as the food it may look like. Here we were in a place most people never go to, away from all regular beach and boating activities and it was full of litter. Some was walked in but much of it probably floated in on the high tides. In other words, it was floating around out there in Cape Cod Bay. How did it get there? Did someone toss it carelessly? Did it blow off a boat or out of someone’s hand? It doesn’t really matter by the time it reaches the beach or pond or meadow or marsh. It’s just trash.

Plastics, especially single-use plastic goods like soda bottles, iced coffee containers, takeout food containers, and so forth and so on are sold for pennies, used for minutes, and will outlast all of us since they never fully break down.

Think about how our drinking water now has microscopic plastic in it and then look around at your own use of plastic. I’m posting a picture you can cut out to remind you why. We can do better and to be honest, we have to. We have messed our own nest.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at

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