Melissa the Trash Rescuer

Every morning in Puerto Vallarta, on my daily walk on the beach to town, I pick up trash. Sadly, I don’t need to bring a bag; I always find a plastic bag, or two, or three. I pick up plastic soda bottles and water bottles and cigarette buts and chips bags, and those little pieces of plastic that are left over when you tear open a bag of deli meat. And bottle caps. Lots and lots of bottle caps.

This is not something new for me. I am obsessed with picking up trash. I look at it as an easy way to keep the environment clean, something as simple as closing the cabinet doors in your kitchen to help keep your kitchen tidy. It’s so easy, I don’t understand why more people don’t do it, and that makes me sad, and worried. Very worried. When I pass a styrofoam cup lying on the street, I think, “If not me, than who?”

A few years ago, we spent a week at the Northern California beach that I grew up on, Stinson Beach. I was horrified at how much garbage I found on the beach. We didn’t even need to buy plastic beach toys for the kids because I found so many discarded plastic buckets and shovels. We found two pairs of flip flops for our 4-year-old, and I filled plastic bag after plastic bag with bottles and cans and chip bags and bottle caps and everything else that humans leave behind. I became obsessed. I couldn’t even enjoy the beach because I was so distracted by all the refuse.

We learned that the weekend before we had arrived was an abnormally warm, beautiful weekend for February in the Bay Area, and on top of that it was Presidents’ Weekend, so the masses descended on Stinson Beach with all the plastic that normally follows us humans around. It gave me hope that maybe the beach that I once loved and had spent so much of my childhood and teenage years at was not normally this dirty, that it was an anomaly. I was almost embarrassed to show my kids. Was there this much garbage when I was younger and I just didn’t pay attention?

I think of myself not as a trash picker-uper, but a Garbage Rescuer, like Dora the Explorer the Animal Rescuer! In Mexico, I am rescuing each plastic beer cup, each Coke bottle, from being dragged into the Ocean. It breaks my heart when I cannot reach a piece of trash because of its precarious position perched on a ledge or on the shoreline near dangerously crashing waves. No Trash Left Behind is my motto, but I can’t rescue it all. There is just too much. And every day, more is left behind to replace what I have picked up.

Even in my relatively clean home of Tahoe, I find trash on my walks. Fortunately, not that much, but especially after a busy holiday like Fourth of July, I stroll my neighborhood streets, and, as usual, find a plastic blag floating on the road and use that to hold the bottle caps and candy wrappers and plastic food containers and straws that I rescue from a life on the street, and in our creeks, forests and meadows.

I have two theories about why people leave trash in their wake. The first is the Accidental Theory. I think of humans as the Peanuts character Linus, who is followed by a trail of dirt everywhere he goes. Us humans cannot escape plastic. Everything that contains anything is made of plastic, so wherever we go, there it is. And we forget things. When we have a picnic in the park or on the beach and we go to pack up, we leave behind a bottle cap that slipped under the blanket or that skinny piece of plastic we ripped off the bag of chips to open it (we need a name for that piece of leftover plastic, don’t you think?) that got caught in the wind, or that dirty diaper that escaped our attention when we put everything back in the bag. Or we get drunk after a big party at the lake and those beer bottles and beer cans never get picked up, or that piece of circular plastic that remains after you twist off a bottle cap or milk carton cap (another thingamajig that needs a name) goes unseen in the grass. Humans just leave things behind. It’s just our nature. But now all our Things our non bio-degradable.

Theory Number Two, which is the more disturbing theory, is that some people don’t care. Or they don’t know. Or they think They will come pick it up. My friend Ryan Salm made a fantastically funny film, Kharma Bums, about his SUP travels in India, and there is a scened in the movie that really stays with me. In one town on the Ganges River he and his friends find trash floating everywhere in the sacred river. When they ask a local about it, he tells them it’s no problem, the river will carry all the plastic out to the ocean and the salt will dissolve all the diapers and soda bottles and plastic bags, like some super duper magic trick.

In Puerto Vallarta there is an ad campaign that really hits home for me. It is an image of a child picking up a corner of the ocean, as if it were a floor rug, to reveal all the garbage hidden underneath. Just because we cannot see all the trash being dragged out to sea doesn’t mean it’s not there.

One of the most impactful documentaries we have shown at our movie theater is the highly educational but disturbing film “Plastic Paradise” (which has a great list of four things you can do now to reduce your plastic consumption.) Even a year after that movie I find myself stumped when I go to the grocery store. How do I give my family milk if I want to avoid plastic? How can they have orange juice or potato chips or chicken if I don’t want to buy anything with plastic? It’s overwhelming. Because one movie I don’t want our world to end up like is “WALL-E,” which takes place in a time where humans have had to flee Earth because it was covered in garbage and no longer inhabitable.

So, for now, I walk. And I pick up trash. And I hope.

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