By Bridget Cunningham
A beach vacation in Jamaica in January. Warm weather, blue water, sunshine. Escaping the New England cold to go see some fabulous music from some of our favorite bands. Paradise. It was as great as it sounds. We stayed a lovely resort in Trelawny, Jamaica. The resort was staffed with people who catered to the guests, and there were lots of luxuries including endless amounts of food, daily room cleaning, and the cleaning and raking the beach in front of the resort every morning.
But what I didn’t realize is that there is no escaping the real world. Many of the things that worry and frustrate me here at home, like inequities in the world, consumption, and trash and plastic piling up, were present in Jamaica. And, just like here at home, they were disguised or hidden from view. Until they weren’t.
It wasn’t until our last full day on the Island that the real world crept in and became apparent. The night before, after the bands finished playing, they announced that there would be a beach clean-up the next morning. I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine that there was much to clean up, given the daily cleaning of the beach. But of course, both David, my other half, and I participated in the clean-up. Probably a dozen or so people joined the trash-gathering effort. We each took a trash bag and spread out up and down the beach and past the immediate beach area in front of the resort. I don’t think that anyone spent more than 45 minutes gathering trash. But everyone came back with overflowing bags containing everything from plastic food wrappers, plastic beverage bottles, shards of plastic, plastic cosmetic and beauty product containers, plastic straws, and flip-flops. There were massive amounts of flip-flops and massive amounts of plastic straws. The straws are particularly insidious because they begin to shred and fray into strips of disintegrating plastic that are even hard to pick up. Pretty horrifying.
What I didn’t know was that gathering the trash was just the beginning of our work. We then we began the process of inventorying all the refuse. The purpose behind inventorying the types of trash and plastic, and the brand names of the products, is to identify large-scale single-use plastic producers and apply pressure on them to seek packaging forms that are alternative to single-use plastic.
I have a 20+ year background in the consumer packaged goods world, working for companies like The Coca-Cola Company and L’Oreal. So, I have fairly deep knowledge across the food and beverage and beauty industries of what companies own which brands. I was able to contribute to the inventorying efforts by categorizing packaging forms by the companies that produced the products. I was surprised to discover that, although much of what we collected and inventoried was produced by the usual suspects—Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, etc., a lot of the plastic and packaging was not just from Jamaica, but that much of it had traveled through the Caribbean waters to Jamaica from other islands.
It was a long day, and gratifying in its own way. We made a small dent in the plastic pollution situation in a little town on a little island, and maybe gathered further support and evidence to put in front of some of the largest single-use plastic producers that they must seek alternatives to their current business models.
Or so we thought. Immediately after the last song of the night, the skies opened up and the rain and winds raged for the rest of the night. We woke the next morning to continued teeming rain and wind. The beach in front of the resort was completely covered with huge piles of seaweed, massive numbers of plastic beverage bottles, and dozens of tires. We couldn’t believe the amount of trash that had accumulated over night, and we wondered where it all came from and how far it had traveled. Further proof that the world is inundated with single-use plastic bottles, food wrappers, and on and on. And that we must find ways to eliminate it at the source vs. continuing to produce it, only to have to dispose of it. Or have it end up in the ocean and on the world’s beaches.
So now what? I returned home to my life more enlightened. But it is a life that still has too much single-use plastic in it. I continue to worry about it, and I continue to contribute to the problem. I am certainly more aware and less accepting of it. I hope that organizations like Plastic Pollution Coalition can help to provide me with tools and guidance to make some necessary changes in my life so that I can at least contribute less to what is a vast, overwhelming global problem.
Bridget Cunningham had 20+ year progressive career in Consumer Packaged Goods as Human Resources leader and business partner. She has worked at The Coca-Cola Company (Soft Drink), L’Oreal USA (Beauty), Playtex Products (Feminine Care, Sun Screen, Baby and Infant Care), The Sun Products Corporation (Laundry and Homecare) and Henkel North America—Consumer Goods (Laundry and Homecare).
In June of 2018, Bridget and her business partner, Simone Wan, launched a new business, IN:Total Wellness. IN:Total Wellness is a pioneering alternative medicine company specializing in all-natural, delicious herbal effervescent drink mixes that use sustainable, powerful, plant-based ingredients and effervescent technology to treat common ailments, including pain, anxiety and sleeplessness.
Learn how to do a brand audit during your next cleanup using this toolkit from Break Free From Plastic.
Join the community of people tracking plastic pollution all over the world. Litterati helps you identify, map, and collect plastic pollution.
Use the Marine Debris Tracker to easily report where you find plastic pollution anywhere in the world and prevent it from impacting our waterways oceans.