"What's plastic foam, Grandpa?"
Some day I'll be an old guy, like my father and his father. And my
granddaughters will ask me questions like "what's plastic foam?" and
"what's a gas station?" When that happens, I'll tell them a story
about Thursday night in Capitola, an idyllic central California beach
I'll tell them about how plastic and plastic foam used to be
everywhere on the land and in the ocean. I'll tell them about how it
used to strangle and choke animals like albatross and sea turtles.
Then I'll tell them how people got organized, pulled together the
best research and made smart changes to clean up our planet. I'll
tell them how scientists and engineers figured out how to make the
same containers out of materials that turn into soil when we are done
When I was a kid I would take bites out of my plastic foam cups and
chew the stuff a bit. I probably even ate some of it. Then I'd take
another bite. The texture was interesting. But I had the odd feeling
that no matter how long I chewed it, it was still plastic foam. It
didn't dissolve and break apart in my mouth like food, leaves or
paper. Then I'd spit the bright white foam blob into my hand and
throw it away. It's still out there, somewhere.
Thursday night at the Capitola City Council meeting I joined dozens
of local citizens who spoke passionately and intelligently about
banning Styrofoam and plastic products from their city's food service
And I listened to the responses of the council: some measured and
others rambling, but all deeply thoughtful in their own way.
It was heartening to hear true wisdom from elected officials, and it
was heartbreaking to hear some elected officials play into the
plastic industry's illogic again.
But the heroes that night were the kids. They were brave, funny and
articulate. When I was their age, I wasn't speaking to the City
Council; I was chewing on plastic foam.
A young woman from Capitola stood in front of her City Council and
said: "Styrofoam and plastic are bad for us, they're bad for the
ocean, they kill animals and they shouldn't be in our food. What's so
hard about banning them from our town? Just ban them. It's a no-
She was right. It's not hard to connect the dots. But the plastic and
restaurant industries are big and powerful. They know that first it
will be Capitola, then a few more towns. Then it will go beyond food
service to packaging materials. Pretty soon we'll have bans on all
non-essential petroleum products.
The industry lobbyists tried to stop the ban on Styrofoam and
plastic. But on Thursday night, they failed. The ban was upheld and
Capitola is becoming a cleaner and greener community.
Some day, we'll live in petroleum-free communities. These first steps
-- these small revolutions -- are building toward that vision.
Nichols, Ph.D., is senior scientist at Ocean Conservancy and a
research associate at the California Academy of Sciences.
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