The day before we were supposed to leave for our trip to the island of Borneo – Kota Kinabalu, to be exact, I would have given almost anything to cancel it. I suddenly wasn’t feeling well, my mother had moved in with us after we scheduled the trip and she required almost around-the-clock care. Just too many things were going wrong. Not one single cell in my body wanted to go on this trip.
As it turns out—it was one of the best three things I’ve ever done in my life. Third only behind adopting my daughter, and my wedding. And that’s what makes it all the more difficult to put into words. What I didn’t expect was that it would literally change my life. The impact was that big. On many levels. Not that anyone that was with me on the trip would have known that. On the “introvert” scale of 1-10, I’m about a 37. Takes me a while to come out of my shell. But as they say, still waters run deep, and that’s what was going on with me on this truly amazing adventure.
But here’s the thing—it wasn’t life changing because I had just so much fun—it’s because as incredibly beautiful and breathtaking and outer-space-surreal as scuba diving was, there was no way to not see the human impact of garbage. One second I was elated with this incredible new alien world and the next my heart felt like it was breaking. It was honestly as beautiful as it was devastating.
Let me say here – I’m not writing this for those fiery environmental conservationists. I’m writing this to people like me. Busy people who know what you’d have to live under a rock not to know about recycling and environmental issues, but don’t give it much thought beyond that.
I’m not (well, wasn’t…) a fiery environmentalist or conservationist, that’s not my education or vocation. I try to do the right thing and I recycle. Where I live, it’s easy. Just toss plastic, paper, and cans in a bag and there ya go. I don’t litter, I try to use as little paper as I can. And I throw my non-recyclable garbage away. That’s all there is to it, isn’t it?
But… where is “away”?
THERE IS NO AWAY.
Think about that. Let it sink in for a minute. When our illustrious leader, Andrew, said those four words, they hit me like a sledge hammer. Wait—doesn’t our garbage to go a magic place and just disappear? Seems ridiculous when put that way but it’s what I, and what I’m assuming probably a lot of other people just like me, on some level, believe. But it has to go someplace. All we are doing when we throw our garbage away is simply moving it from one place to another. One of those away places is twice the size of Texas. Seven million tons of weight—and floating in our ocean.
We’ve all heard the other horrific dangers of using the ocean as a garbage can – sea turtles, one of the most amazing creatures on earth, die horrible deaths because they think the floating plastic bags are jellyfish. The bags lodge in their digestive tracts and they eventually starve to death. Think about that next time you use a plastic bag.
Now, I know there is no immediate or easy way to turn this oceanic tide of garbage around, and if we think about it from that perspective, it’s overwhelming and easy to give up and feel like nothing we do would make any difference. I felt like that too. But you know where the greatest changes in history have begun? Grass roots movements. That means do what we can do. Take care of our own little corner—set an example, pay attention, and we might be surprised at the impact we have on those around us (and in turn, that they have on those around them) and so on, and so on, and so on.
It really hit me smack in the face when, on my last day on the island, the tide was out—way out, and left a significant amount of sand exposed that was previously underwater. We had time to wait before the boat came to pick us up so I decided to walk out and see what the tide left behind.
I passed some garbage buried in the sand, thought about picking it up but (ironically) didn’t have anything to put it in. Passed some more garbage, looked around and saw a staggering amount of garbage everywhere I looked. I couldn’t walk by it anymore without doing something. And what do you know, right at my feet was a plastic bag. I picked it up, shook out the sand so I didn’t take any critters with me, and started picking up. Soon I looked up and saw another person from our group doing the same, and a bit later, two more were out picking up garbage. Between us, in what was probably somewhere around an hour and a half or so, we had filled several large actual garbage bags.
And still—when I had filled my last bag, when it was time to go, I looked around and it didn’t look like we’d made much progress at all. It was overwhelming. To see this with my own eyes brought it all home. I can no longer pretend my garbage just somehow disappears.
But what hit me the hardest was when I picked up one of those countless plastic bags, shook it out, and a sweet little Goby fish slid out. If you don’t know what a goby fish looks like, google it. Crazy cool little fish—big cute bug eyes staring at me. And they have the most amazing symbiotic relationship with shrimp. Seriously, look it up. Anyway, that was the final straw. Nearly broke my heart when he slid out into a little puddle of ocean water looking at me with those big bug eyes. And in that instant, I realized on a certain level, that Andrew was wrong. There is an away.
And I was standing in it.
That image is seared in my brain forever. And now every time I am holding something I need to throw out, I remember that. And I remember…
There is an away.