The True Cost of Plastic Pollution

WATCH: "Blue Mind"

By Dr. Wallace J. Nichols

One not-so-recent morning while packing up our gear to head to the beach with my daughters—sunscreen, towels, wetsuits, surfboards and snacks—they stopped me mid-stride and said they didn’t want to go with me.

"Are you kidding? We’re going to the beach," I said. "The beach!"

"Dad," they said, "when we go to the beach with you, all we do is clean up other peoples' disgusting trash. It’s not just"  (yes, they played the justice card). "Picking up diapers is gross and our friends don’t want to hang out with us anymore."

Trash vastly diminishes the cognitive, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual benefits of our coasts and oceans. 

Their lecture hit me hard right between the eyes. It’s true, we always bring a few bags and clean the beach when we arrive. It can sometimes take a long time. It’s just what the Nichols family does at the beach. But by doing so week, month and year after year, I unknowingly associated one of my favorite lifelong activities—a trip to the ocean—with a tedious chore. It was a heartbreaking insight into my near failure as a father to learn that my kids and their friends abhorred going to the beach with me.

“I'm always happy when I'm surrounded by water... it makes me put my whole life into perspective.” — Beyoncé Knowles

I adjusted our plans for the next several months, choosing a steep trail that led to a difficult-to-access beach with oceanographic conditions that ensured few people and no plastic would wash up on its shores. My kids started to fall in love again with the tide pools, waves, cliffs and sand. Early morning and late night excursions, long walks and short swims, salt and wind, limpets and anemones returned to our lives and filtered into their childhood dreams. This became our home beach. Their beach. Their Pacific Ocean.

"I simply feel more in sync with myself when I'm in the ocean.” — Kelly Slater

Eventually, we returned to the periodic beach clean-up routine up and down the coast, with more passion and purpose. But I had learned a few important lessons: love comes first, our children are not the adults’ clean-up team, and when we trash our environment, the damage is far deeper than economic, ecological and aesthetic.

As a kid, I dreamed of merging my greatest pleasures and deepest passions as a marine biologist in a life full of adventure and beauty. But due to plastic pollution, the reality has been something else. On beaches in El Salvador, sea turtles lumber over windrows of plastic bottles to reach clear sand to deposit their eggs. During a reef survey in Indonesia, we counted 74 floating plastic bags in one minute. Our field sites are often accessed by swimming through plastic soup, mouth and eyes tightly closed. Last week after a lecture in Southern California, my daughter was hit in the face by a Doritos bag and had a diaper stuck to her foot as we surfed.

When the ribbons of land and water along our oceans and wild waterways are despoiled, society is also robbed of some of its best sources of awe, creativity, escape, happiness, healing, inspiration, introspection, joy, peace, play, privacy, relaxation, romance, solitude, transcendence, wonder… I could go on. When plastic replaces wild nature, these benefits evaporate quickly and are replaced by “red mind” emotions including accusation, anger, anxiety, blame, disappointment, disgust, disrespect, frustration, grief, helplessness, resentment, sadness and stress.

Parents, teachers, veterans, musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, scientists all access their local waters in order to live better, happier, more interesting and creative lives. We take our babies, our kids, our lovers, our friends, our colleagues and our elders to the water to be closer to them; to connect. Polluted water shrinks our lives, and robs us of the sacred moments our most precious memories are made of.

"That's where I first discovered my love for music, through the motion of water. My imagination ran wild.” — Pharrell Williams

Yet our agencies, researchers and organizations rarely mention these vast “blue mind” benefits (or “red mind” costs) when justifying their work for clean coasts and oceans; focussing mainly on important threats to the tourism economy; grave impacts to wildlife, such as sea birds and turtles—not to mention the invasion of toxic chemicals into our bodies and ecosystems. When we fail to include the cognitive, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual values of healthy waters, we send a message that those attributes are not important. Or worse, that they aren’t real.

It is true that oceans give us life, but our planet’s wild places also make life worth living, and help heal us when we are broken.

“I feel I belong in the water—I feel we all belong in the water...I cease to be a sort of obsessed intellect and a shaky body, and I just become a porpoise.” — Oliver Sacks

Let’s update the language we use to describe our mission to protect and restore wild bluescapes. Let’s go deeper and discuss the true value of wild waters and the true cost of plastic pollution. Let’s use all of the available knowledge—including neuroscience and psychology—to justify these efforts and build a bigger, more inclusive and diverse blue movement. Let’s help our children fall head over heels in love with their water, and then when they're young adults, let's enroll them in the fight to protect what they love about life on our blue marble home. Let’s protect and restore our waterways and oceans for the medicine they provide.

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is PPC’s founding advisory board chair, and a marine scientist, wild water advocate and dad. His bestselling book "Blue Mind" explores the intersection between waterways, oceans and the human brain. The 6th Annual Blue Mind Summit will be held May 18-20 at Asilomar. More information is available at: www.bluemindcollective.com.