Scene One: the Hockomock Swamp
My turtle trap is about two hundred feet from the edge of the wetland, so I have some swamp-walking to do. Peering across the marsh grasses with my binoculars, I see ripples around the trap, a sign of critters inside. I have data to record – weight, shell dimensions, and markings. I have hiked about a mile into this swamp, so it is just me, the turtles, and the songs of a marsh in spring. I move quietly enough that a mink pops out of the water in front of me and shakes itself off on a mossy log.
It is just us. And my gear.
My water-tight, puncture-resistant waders get me through this swamp and several others. The turtle trap is made with nylon rope, because muskrats will chew the all-cotton version. My field forms and maps are laminated and rain-proofed. In other words, I am a Conservation Biologist subsidized by plastic — neoprene, Kevlar, polyamides, and so on.
Scene Two: Montana
My kids and I are on mile ten of a twelve-mile hike in Glacier National Park. We chose this hike for its miles of open vistas and treeless elevation, which increase our chances of seeing wildlife. My kids have never seen a grizzly bear, but by mile ten, I accept that today is not the day.
At mile eleven, my son has bolted ahead, anxious to put his sore feet in the creek. My daughter is hiking just in front of me and twists back to ask me a question. Her eyes pop. A grizzly is crossing the trail less than fifty feet behind me. Like a quick-drawing cowgirl, I snap my hand to my hip, where my can of bear spray is attached to the belt of my pack. I have the safety tab off in nanoseconds. I hold the can out in front of me, arm outstretched and aiming, thumb on the trigger. No bear is going to get between me and my cubs.
What is the nozzle of the can of bear spray made of? Plastic. So is the safety tab, which can be the difference between stopping a charging grizzly before, versus after, it takes you down. I wonder: is plastic giving me a false sense of security? Would we have ventured 12 miles into the backcountry without it? What would Thoreau do?
Scene Three: the Housatonic Post Office
I am sorting through my mail and chucking the junk mail in the recycling bin, including a thick envelope from the Sierra Club. I have chosen my causes deliberately, and I am not looking to add another conservation organization. I am about to drop the unopened envelope in the bin when I remember: there is probably a sticker inside. As if the paper was not enough waste, the sticker cannot be recycled.
What is the sticker made of? Plastic. Polyvinyl acetate. Pliable, durable, and sticky enough to stay on my car, thanks to chains and networks of relatively enormous, well-bonded molecules. The sticker I have just put in the garbage will outlive me and my kids. And their kids. And beyond.
I would like to know who makes these stickers, and where, and what pollutants are emitted. In 2003, the Sierra Club sued PVC manufacturers for emitting airborne, carcinogenic vinyl chloride. It seems that they do not apply the same standards to the materials they stuff in their fundraising envelopes.
Scene Four: the future
Plastics are ubiquitous. We depend on them even for our solace-seeking wilderness adventures. They are part of — and counter-productive to — our efforts to protect the natural world and clean air. The reduction of plastics will take a movement. Not an “environmental movement,” whereby a subset of people is expected to solve a world-wide, pervasive problem, but a human movement. A well-bonded and non-degradable crusade. A flexible but durable and persistent approach to deconstructing our inventions and redirecting our intentions. Now it begins.
Suzanne Fowle is a Wildlife Biologist, writer, and teacher. She has worked in a variety of habitats, from the lowlands of New England swamps, to the alpine zone of the northern Rockies; from fishery management meetings on the Southeast coast, to the grasslands of North Dakota. She built her nest in Housatonic, Mass. where she lives with her two children.