Today for National Volunteer Appreciation Week, we’re recognizing someone, who many of you know, that is normally staff during spill response, but also contributes in so many ways as a volunteer – Marie Travers! Marie is a veteran spill responder and is affiliated with Bird Ally X, although you may also see her around at other organizations, including Peninsula Humane Society and Pacific Wildlife Care, dedicating her time to wildlife rehabilitation. Marie also has volunteered her time to help lead the “Green Response” working group that came out of last fall’s OWCN Summit. This group is coming up with amazing things we can do to be more eco-friendly during spill responses. Below is an Essay Marie wrote talking about Earth Day. We hope you enjoy this inspirational essay!
Kicking it up a notch: Working toward the best achievable care of the Earth
through green response(ability)
I was recently asked to co-chair the newly formed Green Response Working Group with Dru Devlin and I seriously could not be more excited. I’ve been thinking about greening response probably since I started doing response, and am grateful for the opportunity to finally act on it. Having the ability to be able to do something nice for the planet is one of the few things giving me hope these days. In honor of Earth Day, I wanted to fill you in on what the Green Response Working Group has been up to, and share some thoughts about what I think it means to be an oil spill responder.
Here in California most of us know that Earth Day was inspired in part by the massive blowout of an offshore oil platform six miles off the California coast in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969. Over 3,600 seabirds and countless marine mammals and fish were killed as three to four million gallons of crude oil was released, blackening 35 miles of shoreline and covering 800 square miles of ocean. Almost fifty years later, the Santa Barbara Oil Spill remains the largest oil spill in California and the third largest oil spill in US history, behind the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez. The disaster received global attention, and the powerful images of the mess and the oiled animals forced lot of people to think about their role in protecting the environment.
One of those people was Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Senator who toured the spill site. Mr. Nelson decided to organize a national “teach-in” about the environment that he hoped would move the growing concerns of the general public onto the political agenda to encourage change. The first Earth Day was wildly successful, with 20 million Americans participating according to the Earth Day Network. The movement created public support for the Environmental Protection Agency and was part of the impetus for the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act and the Endangered Species Act. In 1990, 200 million people participated in Earth Day activities worldwide.
Forty-seven years later, Earth Day is more important and more relevant than ever, with so many of the protections we once knew being dismantled in the name of greed, and science being called into question. Earth Day is also a reminder that one person with a great idea can change the world, like Gaylord Nelson did.
I have been an oiled wildlife responder for the last 16 years and have had the opportunity to work at spills in many places, often in makeshift facilities far removed from the luxury of anything that remotely resembles a Primary Care Center or even a rehabilitation center. Some highlights include a former soy factory with a really slippery floor, and an iron ore pellet making facility where a train ran through the building several times a day 20 feet from where we were working. Everywhere I go, I am always reminded of how very lucky I am to live in California where the OWCN exists, where there is infrastructure for giving animals the best achievable care and passionate people trained to make it happen, and where there are laws mandating the clean up of oiled wildlife. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in a place where there is such an exceptional response system. Really. There is nothing like it in the world.
While every spill is different, one thing is true of all of the spills I’ve worked; There is a massive “secondary spill” created by all of the waste generated by the cleanup. According to The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPH), the amount of waste created just solely by the manual removal of oil from the environment is estimated to be about 10 times the volume of oil spilled. That means that a spill the size of the recent Refugio spill would generate around a million pounds of waste. Those numbers don’t even include the enormous amount of waste generated during the cleaning and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife, but I image the ratio is the same, or maybe even more. Anyone who has worked a spill lately has seen the barrels full of empty Dawn bottles, mountains of waste from food, water bottles, packaging, gloves and PPE. I don’t even want to talk about the water. All of it amounts to incredible amount of waste when there are a lot of patients and responders.
That’s where the Green Response Working Group comes in! One of several working groups created during the OWCN Wildlife Summit last fall, the Green Response Working Group has been working hard for the last few months, looking into what we can do to help curb the waste stream created during a response and help OWCN “walk the walk” of environmental stewardship while responding to spills in California.
We’ve been looking at where and how waste is generated, what kinds of behaviors and products we can change to promote green response(ability), and what small steps we can all take to create a greener spill response culture that is in line with our desire to protect the environment and it’s wild animals.
Here are a few of the things we’re working on:
- reducing unnecessary and avoidable waste
- protecting natural resources, like water
- using more natural, biodegradable products that are less likely to have a negative effect on our environment
- using fewer single-use items like plastic water bottles and utensils
- recycling and composting
- creating a list of green products used during spill response (to share with the network and other response organizations)
Our goal is to gradually introduce a greener approach to spill response by researching options and opportunities beforehand so that it’s easy to make eco-friendly choices on the fly during a spill when there is little time for decision making.
By setting an example of responsibility in action, we hope the OWCN will inspire and educate not just other spill response organizations, but all of the member organizations and the individuals in those organizations, as well.
While the Green Response Working Group is an awesome first step, the truth is that now, every day needs to be Earth Day. In order to provide the best achievable care for the Earth, we need to move away from the idea that it’s just one day of the year and think about our individual impacts on the environment every day. I feel it’s sort of a given that as spill responders we care a great deal about protecting the environment, if for no other reason than it is home to the animals that we love. I also think that knowing what we know about oil spills – their prevalence and horrible effects – holds us to a higher level of responsibility. While many people live their lives removed from nature, and need a yearly reminder of Earth Day, those of us that do spill response are intimately aware of what’s going on, and have the unique opportunity to do something about it. We should be setting an example for our friends and family, and trying to walk the walk. We have the opportunity, and I think, the obligation, to make a difference even when we’re not busy cleaning oiled birds.
My relationship with plastic has changed dramatically since I started working with wildlife. In addition to working with thousands of oiled animals, I’ve also seen countless birds entangled in plastic of some sort, especially fishing line and plastic bags. I’ve seen necropsies of birds with plastic in their stomachs. Over time I realized my plastic purchasing behaviors were harming the birds I was trying to save. Something inside me changed and now I can’t even look at a piece of plastic without remembering that it will be around forever and might end up in the belly of a majestic Laysan albatross or a tiny Red-necked phalarope someday. It informs a lot of decisions about how I live and drives my friends and family crazy. Plastic waste fills me with rage. Spills are horrible, but the spill that we are creating with plastic is chronic, and far more damaging, contributing to the slow suffocation of the Earth.
This is why it makes my heart ache to see the amount of single-use plastic we use during spills in the name of helping rehabilitate oiled wildlife. It feels to me as though we’re undoing or negating our good work by participating in an activity that promotes oil production and pollution, and contributes to killing millions of animals every year. Plastic is made from oil, and by purchasing it, we are supporting not only the oil industry but the creation of more plastic that will never go away. We may also be inadvertently contributing to the increased possibility of another oil spill by helping to drive the demand for plastic. Did you know that the manufacturing and transport of water bottles in America uses more than 30 million barrels of oil every year and produces as much carbon dioxide as 2 million cars? Or that every 27 hours Americans (just Americans!) use enough bottled water to circle the entire equator with plastic bottles stacked end to end, and that in a month, those bottles would stretch all the way to the moon and back? If that doesn’t make you want to quit plastic, maybe knowing that 90% of seabirds today have toxic plastic in their bellies will. Our actions when it comes to plastics really do matter.
During a spill we are swept into a culture of moving quickly and using the supplies closest at hand so we can be efficient and help more animals. I think it is these times that matter the most, when we can make our actions count and know that we’re doing every. thing. we. can. to do the least harm possible to the environment. I’m so excited that OWCN is taking steps to make that happen. I think we can all do better knowing what we know. A good first step, if you haven’t taken it already, is to REFUSE SINGLE USE PLASTIC.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
– Maya Angelou
A few weeks ago I was three hours into my four hour drive to Quincy to attend the OWCN spill drill when I was called to a spill in Edmonton. I turned around and was on-site in Edmonton 18 hours later. Luckily, the spill had no impact on wildlife. Across from our hotel parking lot was this amazing mural that really spoke to a lot of the feelings I was having at the time and made me think of the Green Response Working Group, and how happy I am that it was born. By greening up our act not only as an organization, but as individuals, we can help others to do the same and try to encourage that green patch to grow. Happy Earth Day.
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“The giant on the right comes from a land of mass consumption and waste. His body is made-up of junk, trash and random man-made objects. He feels burdened by the weight of his load and feels stress and fear because of it. The giant on the left is showing compassion for her new friend. She comes from a land of green space and an abundance of nature. Her body is made-up of rivers, animals, and vegetation. As a gesture of support and understanding, she calmly puts her hand on the other giant’s shoulder. He’s feeling a little nervous about the change, but a positive transition begins to spread- a change that shares a common ground between the two. Their faces come together and form a complete circle, because they are in harmony with each other”. – Luke Ramsey. Mural by Luke Ramsey and Josh Holinaty.
Here are a few more facts about plastic, brought to you by the Plastic Pollution Coalition:
Worldwide reliance on disposable plastic packaging is overwhelming our planet.
By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight.
Plastic pollution and climate change are parallel global emergencies. Plastic is a petroleum product; to truly divest from fossil fuels, we must reduce our collective plastic footprint.
Plastic never goes away.
Plastic is a material made to last forever, yet 33 percent of all plastic – water bottles, bags and straws – are used just once and thrown away. Plastic cannot biodegrade; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.
- Disposed plastic materials can remain in the environment for up to 2,000 years and longer. Source: DiGregorio, Barry E. “Biobased Performance Bioplastic: Mirel,” Chemistry & Biology 2009
Plastic affects human health.
Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.
» Two broad classes of plastic-related chemicals are of critical concern for human health—bisphenol-A or BPA, and additives used in the synthesis of plastics, which are known as phthalates. Source: “Perils of Plastics: Risks to Human Health and the Environment,” Arizona State University Biodesign Institute 18 March 2010
Plastic spoils our groundwater.
There are thousands of landfills in the United States. Buried beneath each one of them, toxic chemicals from plastics drain out and seep into groundwater, flowing downstream into lakes and rivers.
There are long-term risks of contamination of soils and groundwater by some additives and breakdown by-products in plastics, which can become persistent organic pollutants. Source: Hopewell, Jefferson; Dvorak, Robert; Kosior, Edward. “Plastics Recycling: Challenges and Opportunities,” Biological Sciences 14 June 2009
Plastic attracts other pollutants.
Chemicals in plastic which give them their rigidity or flexibility (flame retardants, bisphenols, phthalates and other harmful chemicals) are oily poisons that repel water and stick to petroleum-based objects like plastic debris. So, the toxic chemicals that leach out of plastics can accumulate on other plastics. This is a serious concern with increasing amounts of plastic debris accumulating in the world’s oceans.
» Fish, exposed to a mixture of polyethylene with chemical pollutants absorbed from the marine environment, bioaccumulate these chemical pollutants and suffer liver toxicity and pathology. Source: Rochman, Chelsea “Ingested Plastic Transfers Hazardous Chemicals to Fish and Induces Hepatic Stress,” Scientific Reports 2013
Plastic threatens wildlife.
Wildlife become entangled in plastic, they eat it or mistake it for food and feed it to their young, and it is found littered in even extremely remote areas of the Earth. In our oceans alone, plastic debris outweighs zooplankton by a ratio of 36-to-1.
Over 260 species, including invertebrates, turtles, fish, seabirds and mammals, have been reported to ingest or become entangled in plastic debris, resulting in impaired movement and feeding, reduced reproductive output, lacerations, ulcers and death. Source: Thompson, Richard C.; Moore, Charles J.; vom Saal, Frederick S.; Swan, Shanna H. “Plastics, the Environment and Human Health: Current Consensus and Future Trends,” Biological Sciences 14 June 2009
Plastic piles up in the environment.
Americans discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year. Only 8 percent gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, is burned or becomes litter.
Plastic pollution is an environmental and social justice issue. Fenceline communities are most adversely affected by plastic pollution at every stage of its lifecycle
- More than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. Source: Eriksen, Marcus; Lebreton, Laurent C. M.; Carson, Henry S.; Thiel, Martin; Moore, Charles J.; Borerro, Jose C.; Galgani, Francois; Ryan, Peter G.; Reisser, Julia. “Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans,” PLoS One 10 Dec. 2014
Plastic poisons our food chain.
Even plankton, the tiniest creatures in our oceans, are eating microplastics and absorbing their hazardous chemicals. The tiny, broken down pieces of plastic are displacing the algae needed to sustain larger sea life who feed on them.
» Contaminated plastics when ingested by marine species present a credible route by which the POPs can enter the marine food web. Source: Andrady, Anthony L. “Microplastics in the Marine Environment,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 2011
Plastic costs billions to abate.
Everything suffers: tourism, recreation, business, the health of humans, animals, fish and birds—because of plastic pollution. The financial damage continuously being inflicted is inestimable.
» The overall natural capital cost of plastic use in the consumer goods sector each year is US$75 billion. Source: United Nations Environment Programme “Plastic Waste Causes Financial Damage of US$13 Billion to Marine