Since you can’t fix everything, you finally have to pick one thing and begin. Even if it’s a big thing that seems seems insoluble, you act as if it isn’t. You imagine how it could be. And if it requires a million tasks, you try tackling one of the million. You do your best. That's why I want you to meet Annie Rothschild, whose commitment to reducing the daunting problem of plastic pollution is earnest and inspiring. It's time for a glimpse of someone young and idealistic, still at the start of her journey, but thinking long term, little by little, and not losing faith.
Annie Rothschild would like her pregnancy to be an environmentally conscious journey. She has long been concerned about the harmful effects of plastic on the planet and human health, but impending parenthood has intensified her sense of mission. Expecting a baby does that. You feel vested in the future in a profoundly personal way. You want with all your heart to set good forces in motion.
Annie is a musician who plays upright bass for a band called Nocona (“Americana rock and roll music”) and has also worked for about ten years as a wardrobe specialist and makeup artist for film, television, and photo shoots. In other words, her life is hectic, and she readily admits that her pregnancy, which occurred while she and her fiancé were still in the midst of planning their October wedding, was an accident. “It’s very exciting but we definitely got thrown off course a bit,” she says. “And here I am now interviewing midwives and trying to figure out what we’ll need for the baby, and trying to do it plastic-free.”
How does one do it plastic-free? Annie is actively involved with an organization called Plastic Pollution Coalition and hopes to find some answers to share with others. She knows it won’t be easy. “Once you open your eyes and see the plastic all around you, it’s overwhelming,” she admits. “It’s in every grocery store, all the beauty products, all the toys and baby stuff. It’s everywhere.”
“And the truth is that people don’t know how bad plastic is. It’s such a lightweight, clear, seemingly easily disposable item that it seems like it doesn’t have a heavy environmental impact, but it’s the opposite. So through organizations like the Plastic Pollution Coalition that I’m a part of, we’re trying to educate people, and we’re also just trying to figure things out and come up with alternatives, and I want to be involved and help out. It’s become a passion of mine, and it’s never going away. I’m obsessed, basically. Hopefully in a healthy way.”
Annie may be obsessed, but she’s not naïve. “Even for someone like myself, I’ve tried so hard never to buy it, and I generally don’t, but sometimes you’re stuck in some kind of situation…” She laughs. “I feel like I’m confessing. But immediately eradicating plastic from your life would be very difficult. Maybe the key is to just try to do a little bit better than you did yesterday. Yeah, even a little bit better is still great.”
If we resolve to do a little bit better, starting wherever we happen to be, then little by little, who knows what we can achieve? One of the first opportunities Annie perceived was to bridge the music community and the environmental community. At the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, she helped develop a pilot project called Plastic Free Touring (more about that in another post) that demonstrated how musicians could reduce their plastic footprint on the road, and it’s making a difference.
The idea is to look around in your own life and see what spheres of influence you have, what connections you can make, what platforms you can use. Whether within schools, offices, or community organizations, it may come as a surprise to realize how much you can help shape an event and gradually change a culture.
Our own individual habits are of course crucial as well. Annie intends to make careful choices throughout her pregnancy and into parenting that are consistent with her knowledge, values, and passion. She’s just beginning, and she’s humble about it, and she would love to hear about the experiences of others.
“So far I have one tangible thing I can talk about,” she says. “Cravings for food. I have to say I’ve eaten more food from plastic since I’ve been pregnant than I had for the prior two years. It’s because I crave dairy, in particular, organic, plain cold yogurt…I need this yogurt! I finally found an awesome yogurt packaged in glass that they sell in only one place I know of in San Francisco. The brand is St. Benoit, and it’s heavenly.”
“Another thought I’ve had is to reach out and try to engage actual manufacturers. Start a real conversation. I know that’s kind of a big thing, but what are they thinking? I’d really like to know. Like, what’s up with the plastic baby bottles and plastic nipples? It’s a shocker that those are even being made anymore. And pacifiers. Is that plastic our babies are sucking on? What are we sticking in their mouths? I just want to know. I just want to find out what alternatives we have.”
Annie is determined to delve into this more fully after her wedding, which, by the way, will be a plastic-free event, and that’s been an adventure in itself. (”They all looked at me like I stepped off the moon when I said I’m not having plastic. No plastic cups, no plastic straws, steel cups for everybody!”)
“I’m excited to be on this voyage,” Annie says. But this is a journey of learning, as much about asking questions as giving advice, and she hopes there are other parents and parents-to-be who will travel with her.
Annie’s awareness of plastic pollution and its health and environmental impacts developed gradually. “About four years ago a friend of mine mentioned something about not wanting to buy plastic,” she explains. “At first I didn’t get it, but it was like a seed was planted. You just start noticing all the little things, all the to-go cups, all the straws, the plastic bags everywhere. I started feeling guilty…just throwing all that stuff away gave me a weird feeling of guilt. So it was like a seed had been planted, and that seed grew into a garden, a whole ecosystem.”
Impending motherhood has only deepened Annie’s concern and commitment. She has gone from wedding mode into baby world faster than she ever envisioned, but even in the midst of all the planning, preparation, and major life changes, her resolve to keep plastics out of the picture remains as unshakeable as ever.
“Maybe part of it is based on fear,” she admits. “I’m genuinely nervous about what my child’s exposure to plastic will be. Our baby is not going be drinking out of plastic bottles and things like that, but it’s also challenging to find household furnishings without toxic chemicals, and non-plastic toys.”
Even as we speak, a baby shower is being organized for Annie, and she has discovered she’s uncomfortable about telling well-meaning friends what they should and should not give. It conflicts with an old fashioned sense of etiquette that she attributes to her Southern upbringing.
“I aspire to be gracious,” she says. “These are friends and family who are coming from a loving place. They want to stock our house with presents and things, and it’s generous of them, and I don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful.”
So how does one get the message across without sounding pious or preachy or unappreciative?
“I’m glad we’re talking about this,” Annie says, thoughtfully. “I have to be soft, but strong. Maybe if I can just add it onto the registry or invitation, No Plastics Please, it wouldn’t sound too abrasive, but sends an honest message about my values. I see this as an opportunity to strengthen our commitment, not stray from it. This is who we are, and this is how we feel about things, and we want to incorporate these ideals into this next phase of our lives, including our new family member.”
One hopes that friends would understand and respect that, and it’s possible we’re overthinking this. But in fact, we’ve wandered into a bigger forest, bumping against the same basic question: how do we constructively communicate our concerns about plastic pollution to others in the multiple moments of every day when the issue rears its head?
Sometimes we feel embarrassed and awkward about championing even knowledge-based values that concern us all. We don’t want to appear to be proselytizing or pontificating, we don’t want to seem heavy-handed and self-righteous, we just want to be reasonably affable and on our way.
But we live in a world where everyday transactions involve the proffering of plastic, and once you are aware of the consequences of this unmitigated generation of trash, it’s hard to remain silent. Do we just say no to the plastic, or do we add a little information? How can we effectively communicate when these moments arise?
Annie has concluded that it’s all about tone, and finding the right tone is one of the struggles in working for any cause, not just combating plastic pollution. “If it’s holier-than-thou, it isn’t going anywhere,” she points out.
She’s right. No one likes to feel scolded. We need to implicitly acknowledge common foibles as well as common interests, and we must set an example with our behavior rather than preaching. The specifics may depend on a quick assessment of each situation.
Annie has plenty of anecdotes to share. There was the time she spent two hours in a store shopping for ribbon to be used for various wedding-related purposes, brought armfuls to the counter for check-out, and was helped by a pleasant woman in her seventies. After ringing up the order, she promptly began putting the ribbons into plastic bags, which of course Annie didn’t want.
“Oh, it’s okay,” said the woman. “These are biodegradable.”
Annie examined one of the bags more closely. “This is not biodegradable,” she said. “They’re lying to you.”
The woman’s response: “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“She threw down the gauntlet there,” says Annie. “I told her, ‘It does matter! It does.’ But did that have any effect on her? Probably not.”
“These kinds of moments present themselves all the time,” she continues. “Like at the airport, a woman at the concessions stand asking me if I want a bottle of water, and I said, ‘No thank you, and you shouldn’t be drinking this either, for these reasons.’ She looked at me blankly. She was just doing her job. She meant well.”
“Even with my parents,” Annie continues. “They understand the problem. But they think, how are you going to do anything about it? The world’s going to hell anyway.”
That’s deflating and not much to work with, but it’s also an understandable response. We all feel overwhelmed and discouraged sometimes. And that’s all the more reason to act with integrity, try to adhere to our convictions, and maintain a degree of optimism, which is a life-giving force.
As for educating others, such as those we encounter in plastic-transactions, you have to quickly decide in each situation if it’s a potentially meaningful chance to be instructive. Often it is not. Avoid getting upset or frustrated or condescending.
“It’s such a fine line, even in talking about environmental stuff, where you don’t make that person the bad guy,” says Annie. “I just don’t think people are very educated about it. We’ve gotten into this norm, where we use all this plastic stuff, and people don’t think about it or realize it’s a massive problem. But I actually do believe that deep down in some level of people’s consciousness they know it’s not good, and they feel bad about it, or guilty. It’s a huge waste management crisis, actually, and it’s not sustainable.”
Annie has developed some handy, informative talking points. But she also recognizes that in most situations, the best way to decline a plastic bag, cup, straw, or whatever, is a simple, “No, thank you. I’m trying not to use plastic.”
With that response, you’re setting an example, not telling someone else what to do. Furthermore, if it elicits the question “why?” that gives you an opportunity to explain, and if it elicits some understanding that was already there, you have reinforced the message. If it garners only cluelessness, don’t get too upset. The tide will turn, little by little.
And that brings us to another important message. We’re taking on a huge job here, and we cannot expect immediate success. The point is to do a little better each day. As with all environmental problems, significant legislative action and economic policy will be necessary, as well as compromise, sacrifice, and innovation, and progress will likely be slower than we wish, but we can start in our own lives right now. Here’s the question we can ask ourselves: Am I doing a little better today than yesterday?