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Growing up, the biggest environmental crisis Sandra Ann Harris remembers was the crusade to save humpback whales, which in the 1970s were endangered by commercial whaling.
“We were thinking the Earth could still take care of herself,” she said.
The 2020 landscape looks a bit different. “We’re endangering ourselves and the generation after us; [it’s] not an Orwellian, distant date.”
It wasn’t until 2008 that Harris had a lightbulb moment about one of the most insidiously normalized contributors to landfill, climate change and environmental stress: plastic. Her son’s preschool started sending students’ lunchboxes back with waste as a means to curb their own impact, but the damage was done. Juice box straws, cheese stick wrappers and Ziploc bags were piling up.
A veteran investigative journalist, Harris began researching plastic: where it came from, what it was used for and how it left our homes to wind up, often, in an incinerator or the ocean. She founded ECOlunchbox to provide plastic-free and affordable containers and reduce long-term plastic use.
So she recently launched “Say Goodbye to Plastic,” a “survival guide” hybrid of memoir, education and affirmation for those looking to adapt their lifestyle. You don’t even have to read it linearly if you don’t want to — start where you can.
“[The book] is an invitation for people to join the plastic-free moment,” she said from Point Reyes, where she’s spent the weekend kayaking. It’s one of her favorite pastimes, and one plastic waste has chronically threatened. “It’s not rocket science to say goodbye to plastic. It’s an exercise in mindfulness.”
The stats, unsurprisingly, are grim: By 2050, at the rate we are consuming and producing waste, there could be more pieces of plastic in the ocean than fish. Many low-income communities and communities of color suffer more acutely the pollution and after-effects of plastic manufacturing and waste, due to their proximity to factories and recycling plants. Harris knows, but in her decade of entrepreneurship and activism she’s found that overwhelming readers with information isn’t always the best approach.
“I feel like we need to light people up with their hearts and the beauty of the environment,” she said, “sharing nature and its joys with the future. We have to come from a place of optimism.”
The book couldn’t have come at a better time. Harris believes much large-scale progress has been upended by the pandemic and the necessities of single-use PPE, such as gloves, masks and shrouds, that are made partially or entirely of plastic.
The good news is, starting is easy. Harris suggests choosing one room in the home to begin with, the kitchen for example. Wooden spatulas can replace rubber ones, dishwashing liquid comes in cardboard boxes, cellulose-based sponges work just like regular ones. Bathrooms are particularly rife with opportunities to minimize plastic use. It doesn’t have to be hard, though it may seem daunting.
“That’s why I wrote the book! They can start wherever they want,” Harris says. “It’s their journey, but I provided a roadmap. We don’t need to know how to do something to start. Anyone can start.”