Originally Published on heatherwhite.com in June 2020
The first six months of 2020 felt like a decade. We are all anxious.
Given the global pandemic of Covid-19, we recognize that we are biologically connected. As temperatures above the Arctic Circle hit a record of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the effects of climate change accelerate, it’s harder to ignore that we are ecologically linked. The tremendous impacts of the necessary stay-at-home orders show us that our economic livelihoods are intertwined. The Black Lives Matter movement and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahman Aubrey and so many others demonstrate that we must confront and dismantle systemic racism.
Given the collective pain that is now exposed and also unites us, how can we use this shared pandemic experience for positive change? It’s time for self-reflection, for hope, and ultimately, for action.
Hope came to me recently from an unlikely place — a conversation earlier this month about protecting the oceans from plastic pollution. On June 7, 2020, Greg Reitman of the Blue Water Institute invited me to participate in a celebration of United Nations World Oceans Day to celebrate the unifying force of our oceans. The day included discussions with Fabien Cousteau, Annie Leonard, Deia Scholsberg, Vasser Seydel and many other leaders in ocean conservation.
Blue Water Summit 2020 with Dianna Cohen, Kristal Ambrose, Heather White.
During our panel, Dianna Cohen, founder and CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Kristal Ambrose, Executive Director of the Bahamas Plastic Movement, and I talked about the challenges that plastic pollution poses for human health, ocean health, and the planet.
Clearly we’re not close to the ocean here in the Greater Yellowstone. Yet microplastic pollution is a huge problem in the nearby Gallatin River, made famous by the great fly fishing movie A River Runs Through It. The nonprofit citizen science group Adventure Scientists, based here in Bozeman, Montana, tested Gallatin river water at 72 different sites. Fifty-seven percent of the river samples were tainted with plastic pollution.
It’s raining plastic across the world, including in the national parks. Americans eat a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. With Covid-19 precautions, many gains to curb plastic pollution have been lost as powerfully portrayed in this photo collage from The Guardian.
Like ocean health, the issue of plastic pollution affects us no matter where we live.
During the panel, we discussed the intersection of plastic production, environmental justice, human health, climate change, and, of course, the oceans.
Listen to our conversation here at 2:06. Dianna spoke to the health effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals unleashed through plastic production. We also discussed the manufacture of single use plastics and its disparate impacts on communities of color in “Cancer Alley”of Louisiana and the Texas coast.
Plastic production is an environmental justice issue and intersects with America’s culture of systemic racism. Facilities are often located in neighborhoods that are predominantly black, indigenous and communities of color. Called “fence line communities,” these towns are hurt by air and water pollution from local plastic production and often experience higher rates of asthma, cancer, and environmentally-related disease. Dianna pointed out the relationship between plastics and climate change. The documentary The Story of Plastic, which was aired on the Discovery Channel on Earth Day 2020, also makes the compelling link to global warming and the international expansion of single use plastic markets and production.
Kristal underscored the importance of engaging the next generation with environmental stewardship and the need for policy change like she’s led in the Bahamas. Her work with the Bahamas Plastic Movement has inspired young people to take action. Together, they’ve convinced government officials to ban plastic bags and protect the ocean that supports the health and the economy of the Bahamas. Kristal remarked that the young people she teaches about marine biology make her confident that we can and will work together to save the planet. We also discussed that potential policy change is also on the horizon in the United States with the introduction of The Break Free from Plastic Act in the Senate and House of Representatives. This bill would make companies who manufacture plastics take responsibility for recycling and disposal.
During this time of unprecedented change and challenges around the world, the problems we face collectively can overwhelm us.
I left this particular discussion with Dianna and Kristal, however, with a profound sense of hope that the new global understanding of our biological, ecological, and economic connectedness will lead to action and change.
What can you do to curb plastic pollution and protect our oceans?
Honest, direct conversations can spark action for substantive, positive progress.
In psychology, brain plasticity is a good thing. It means we can adapt and change and establish new neural pathways. Hope helps us innovate and create new ways of thinking, too.
We must keep listening, learning, advocating, and taking action for a greener, healthier, more equitable world. We have a lot of work to do.
The plasticity of hope will help us protect and support each other and the one blue planet we share.
Heather White is President of Heather White Strategies, LLC. She is the former president and CEO of Yellowstone Forever, executive director of EWG, and Senate staffer. Heather lives in Bozeman, Montana.