Book review: Trashlands: A Novel, by Alison Stine

Trashlands: A Novel book coverI typically review only non-fiction books, but this fictional tale hit too close to home and I have to share it with you!

This dystopian novel offers a glimpse into a dark future if we don’t make great changes in our current world. The story takes place decades from now and the remnants of wasted resources and excessive plastic abound. Due to global warming, sea levels rose drastically. Americans constructed levees to keep the rising sea level back but those eventually collapsed and caused the great floods. “After the sea walls would not be rebuilt. The roads would not be repaired. Maps had been redrawn with the oceans farther inland…There were no homes.” The main characters live in Scrappalachia, in “the center of the United States,” an area that “became the great vast orchards of scrap” after the floods. They live in old vehicles or make-shift shacks next to Trashlands, a strip club.

“They followed the plastic tide. After the floods destroyed the coasts, rewrote the maps with more blue, something was in the water that lapped at Ohio and Georgia and Pennsylvania. Plastic. People learned quickly that it was useful. It had to be.”

Few forests and natural areas and bodies of clean water exist, thus animals and wildlife are rare. As one person remarks, “People make everything go extinct.” That statement is striking because it’s sadly true. In reality, we are causing the mass extinction of thousands of species right now. In the book, only the older generation could recall things we take for granted, like running water, the internet, or kids playing in autumn leaves. Books are rare since the floods destroyed many of them. An older man recalled the U.S. postal system, which had stopped gradually:

“Roads had been washed away. There were gas shortages, price gouges. Letters piled up, were lost or stolen. Strikes happened…Hospitals closed just when the stream of patients, their lungs filled with water or smoke, became untenable. Groceries couldn’t keep bottled water, rice, or meat on the shelves. It became more common to see plastic bottles than crops in a field. The ground was too saturated to plant…No one knew to collect the plastic yet. No one knew it was all they would have.

Plastic and trash debris floating in water with fish swimming around it.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

In this future, plastic is a highly valuable resource and people can’t understand why previous generations ever wasted it or discarded it. They struggle to believe that plastic items were once created to be disposable or made for single-use, such as plastic forks. But most plastic had been packaging. One character muses, “What a world that must have been, to have had to protect everything.” A young woman finds what had been a plastic trash can, but didn’t know what it was. Someone older explains that people used to throw stuff away and needed a place to store their ‘trash’ before removing it from their homes.

Plastic drives all aspects of life. ‘Pluckers’ collect and sell plastic waste to factories for little profit in order to survive. The factories reprocess the plastic into plastic bricks and other items. Factory owners sometimes kidnap young children from the poor and force them to work in the factories. Children’s hands are small, which allows them to do a better job at sorting the plastics.

“Yes, people knew that plastic was poison, but they didn’t care. They wanted to make money.”

Junkyard and piles of scrap, incudling a damaged car.
Photo by Evan Demicoli on Unsplash

This novel presents a brilliant concept, an uncertain future drastically changed by the climate crisis. This future is full of sexual assault, rape, and violence. Women live with made-up “families” in order to protect themselves. Some characters feel that women could run the world better than men, and had even come close to doing so at one time.

“[Women] would all do a real fine job of running a world. You know it. I know it. And men know it. That’s why they hold them back.”

I really enjoyed this book and found the perspective really impactful. I hope the world doesn’t come to this! Perhaps we, as a global community, can unite and tackle the effects of climate change. Feel free to comment below on what you thought of the book. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

Fireworks on the beach

Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo by A n v e s h on Unsplash

I love fireworks. My son loves fireworks. So much so that we drag my (grumbling) husband to watch them every July 4th. However, I do like to leave the annual tradition of blowing up sparkly gunpowder to the professionals. I have never taken much to buying and setting off my own fireworks, especially with a young child around. Since I don’t purchase consumer fireworks, I honestly have never given much thought to the waste they create. But then my best friend, who lives on the coast of North Carolina, sent me this photo the day after July 4th last year:

Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach
Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach, July 5, 2020. Photo by Taylor Notion

She collected that much plastic and cardboard firework waste on a walk where she lives, all left behind by people the night before. That’s the amount she found that hadn’t already washed into the ocean during high tide. That’s from just one section of one beach, in one town. I imagine fireworks at the beach are fun and beautiful, but at what cost to the environment?

Waste

After reading multiple news articles from coastal states, particularly Florida, I discovered that the Independence Day firework waste collected is measured in tons. Tons! Even on beaches where fireworks are illegal, such as on Hilton Head Island, beach patrol collected seven trailers’ worth of fireworks debris in 2019.

“Any regular beach walker will tell you about encountering little ribbons of plastic along the tide line in the days and weeks after the Fourth of July. All waiting for the high tide that will be their ride to join that vast swirl of ocean-borne plastics.” -Mark Lane, The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Since these are set off in the dark, it’s difficult to find all of the scattered pieces once exploded. “Fireworks launchers are big and easy to spot and haul away, but each rocket launched and bomb exploded rains tiny shards of plastics and cardboard along with a smattering of metals like lead and copper.”

Plastics

The plastic bits break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are then ingested by fish and marine animals. The toxins from those plastics make their way through the food chain, all the way into our bodies.

Saturn Missile Battery fireworks
This 25 shot Saturn Missile costs under $2.00 but will leave microplastics for hundreds of years.

Here is just one example. The Saturn Missile Battery (SMB), which I’ve seen debris from in a lot of Fifth of July clean-up images, is a common type of aerial firework. It consists of a cardboard base packed with between 25 to 1,000 shots. These shots are small plastic tubes filled with explosive powder. “When an SMB is detonated, each of those tubes shoots into the air with a shrill whistle, shatters apart and falls back to earth, creating a shower of litter that’s hard for even the best-intentioned reveler to clean up. Unlike colorful caps and wings, the dull gray or green SMB litter blends into sand and soil.” These bits of plastics and microplastics will last for hundreds of years.

Fifth of July Clean-ups

For all celebrations at the beach, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends cleaning up after ourselves, participating in coastal clean-ups, and educating others. “By celebrating the Fourth of July and enjoying fireworks responsibly, we can honor our country through protecting our beloved coastal environments, and the marine animals who rely on these habitats.”

Fireworks on a road
Photo by Alexander Kagan on Unsplash

Wildlife Disturbance

Left on the beaches, fireworks debris harms marine life. They block the paths of sea turtles and crabs. Not to mention birds and marine animals ingest these small pieces of debris. Additionally, there are dangers to all wildlife from injury and entanglement from the plastic garbage. Unfortunately, July 4th is during prime sea turtle nesting season.

The noise from fireworks disturbs animals everywhere, from eagles and other birds to our domesticated love ones. The loud explosions cause panic and despair in many animals. Just think of how your dog or your neighbor’s dog reacts every 4th of July.

“Environmentalists from Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Audubon Bird Stewards reported that the noise, debris, and lights from fireworks were negatively impacting both sea turtles and beach nesting birds. Fireworks cause aborted nesting attempts, ingestion of plastic residue, and disturbed and disoriented hatchlings, all of which significantly reduces the number of successful births.”

Seal with a plastic or rubber ring growing into the skin around its neck.
Any litter you leave on the beach can potentially harm another species. Image by Noutch from Pixabay

Other Problems from Fireworks

Consumer fireworks cause thousands of injuries annually in the United States. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2019 there were approximately 10,000 injuries from fireworks treated in emergency departments, with about 73% of those during just a one-month interval surrounding July 4th.

In addition, fireworks, both consumer and professional types, are potentially toxic to the air and water, hence to us, wildlife, and the water we drink.

Fireworks from gender reveal parties have caused massive wildfires.

Did you know that Americans spend close to $1 billion annually on consumer fireworks? This number astonished me for many reasons. Do you know how many problems we could solve for ourselves, wildlife, and the planet with $1 billion? Make a list, pick one, and I bet it’s money better spent than just blowing it up.

Fireworks debris piled up on sand.
Photo by Karen Montgomery on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Environmentally Friendly Fireworks

There have been some developments with making more environmentally friendly fireworks, but these changes have not been significant enough to make large-scale differences. These include fireworks released with compressed air as an alternate propellant and changing the chemical make-up to reduce pollutants, but the studies on the latter are still new and the impact is not clear. In consumer fireworks, some companies are trying to switch to recycled paper and cardboard components over plastics, but testing new products takes time and money.

Fireworks debris on the coast of New Zealand.
Photo by Murray Adamson on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

New Traditions

July 4th is no celebration for the environment and wildlife. We can do better. Especially with something that is so non-essential to our lives.

I argue that we don’t need to set off consumer fireworks or sparklers on the beach or anywhere else in nature, at all. In fact, I began this article as a person who loved to drag her family to professional fireworks every summer, but after researching the problems even they create, I’m starting to think differently. Are there new traditions we can create? What about laser light shows?

If you do set off fireworks on the beach or in a natural area, please take safety precautions and clean up the debris. It really matters! We can all make a difference and encourage others to do the right thing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Let Freedom Ring and Fireworks Fly, but Keep Debris off the Beaches and Out of the Sky!” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, July 1, 2019.

Article, “Fireworks: Can they ever be eco-friendly?” Deutsche Welle, accessed June 19, 2021.

Article, “Are Fireworks Bad for the Environment?” by Russell McLendon, Treehugger.com, updated February 23, 2021.

Footnotes:

 

Plastic Free July!

Hi everyone, July is almost here! What does that mean for you? Hotter weather, fireworks and barbecue, maybe a new fiscal year?

Well, did you know it could also mean PLASTIC FREE JULY?!

What is Plastic Free July?

“Plastic Free July is a global yearly challenge where millions of people give up single use plastic during the month of July. It aims to raise awareness of the amount of single-use disposable plastic items in our lives and challenges people to do something about it.” 1millionwomen.com.au

I wanted to write a short post to introduce you to this annual challenge. It was created by the organization plasticfreejuly.org.

Why Go Plastic Free and Not Just Recycle?

Because only 9% of plastic sent to recycling actually gets recycled.

Because recycling is NOT the answer.

Because plastic has entered every ecosystem across the planet.

Plastic containers of convenience food at the supermarket.
Plastic is embedded in our culture, especially surrounding convenience foods. Photo by me.

Let go of Shame

Are you just discovering the ramifications of disposable plastics? Or are you still struggling to take your first step toward eliminating disposable plastic from your house and life? Or have you already gone plastic free?

Whichever situation you find yourself in, the first thing you need to do is let go of any guilt or shame. I don’t want you to feel those emotions when it comes to your habits surrounding plastics, because negative feelings won’t propel you to action.

I want you to feel enlightened, hopeful, enthusiastic. If you’re just starting and you’ve already thought about these issues then you’ve already consciously taken the first step. Go you!

Sign up to take the Challenge!

Resources

There are many organizations, websites, films, and social media groups dedicated to the plastic crisis and about going plastic-free. I’ve listed my favorites on my Recommended Websites page. Please check out some of my other posts related to plastic here and here.

Sea turtle on beach sand.
Image by Amanda Martino on Pexels.

Beyond July

July is a great month to become aware of the problems and to start. However, once July is over you can keep going! You can help prevent the plastic crisis from getting worse. Be the change!

Before you go, if you have four minutes, please watch this video from The Story of Stuff Project:

Thanks for reading, Happy July!

Inspiration abounds on Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island after sunrise
Hilton Head Island just after sunrise.

If you read my post about my family’s weekend trip to Hilton Head Island last fall, then you already know how much we love the island. We recently returned from a week-long trip there, and inspiration was all around! Besides the natural beauty of the island and the gorgeous beaches, there are many environmentally conscious things I appreciate about Hilton Head Island.

My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island.

Plastic bag ban in Beaufort County, South Carolina

They implemented a plastic bag ban last fall, and I am here to tell you that from a tourist’s perspective, businesses have not been hurt by this. People were shopping in all the shops and supermarkets and the plastic bag ban did not seem to deter anyone from spending money. I have not found any studies on the result of this ban in the last 8 months, but I imagine the impact has been huge!

Unfortunately, I did find one article indicating that Target and Walmart are using supposedly “reusable” plastic bags. But since they are made of the same material as regular plastic bags, they defeat the whole purpose. I did not happen to shop at either store while there so I did not witness this first hand. As the article noted, that is disappointing.

At the other shops and stores I visited, I personally received only paper bags when I didn’t have my cloth bags with me. I love it! Can’t we do this everywhere?

Dunes with a palm tree.
Gorgeous dunes on HHI.

Wildlife

There’s a lot of cherished and protected wildlife on the island. We saw all types of birds, including pelicans – my favorite! We saw dolphins, tons of fish, and several types of crabs. There are also bald eagles, alligators, and turtles living on the island but we didn’t personally get to see those this time. The local government’s website educates on sustainable living, the types of local wildlife, native plants, biodiversity, ecosystems, and how everyone can help protect those things.

Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset.
Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset.
Baby crab, dark gray.
Baby crab!

Sea Turtle Conservation Efforts

Although we did not see sea turtles this trip, we saw at least 7 cordoned loggerhead sea turtle nest areas. They were marked with orange signs provided by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which alerts the public about the protection of this endangered species through federal and state laws.

Loggerhead sea turtle nest sign, cordoned and marked by the South Carolina department of Natural Resources.
Loggerhead sea turtle nest, cordoned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area), cordoned off by the SC Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area). The SC Department of Natural Resources cordoned the nests.

Many Atlantic coast towns have laws, regulations, and organizations to protect sea turtle nests. On Hilton Head Island, lights on buildings and hotels cannot shine in the direction of the beach. People are only permitted to use red or “turtle-safe” flashlights on the beach between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. between May and October. They have a volunteer organization that patrols, monitors, and reports on sea turtle nests. They also clean up beach litter and plastics.

I read this article about a Kemp’s Ridley turtle making a nest on Hilton Head Island, a first-time event for the most endangered of all the sea turtle species! Wow!

The Coastal Discovery Museum has an “Adopt-a-Nest” Program, which not only sponsors the protection of a sea turtle nest but also supports the museum’s educational programs. Of course, this idea excited me so I absolutely adopted a nest while writing this post! They emailed me to let me know that my nest will be the 277th one this year and that they’ll keep me informed on the progress of my adopted nest.

Can I inspire you to adopt a nest as well? Just use the link above!

Baby sea turtles on the beach.
Photo by Skeeze on Pixabay.

Coastal Discovery Museum

The Coastal Discovery Museum on the island is a great non-profit and Smithsonian Affiliate, dedicated to educating and protecting the natural resources, history, and ecosystems of the region. Their mission “inspires people to care for the Lowcountry,” through their many programs, exhibits, talks, and tours. What a great organization.

We’ve visited several times in past years but this year we did a Dolphin and Nature Cruise with the museum and really enjoyed it. And yes, we did see dolphins! The museum docent provided a dolphin skull replica and spoke about the anatomy, diet, and lifestyle of the local dolphins. The captain provided a rich tour about the history and nature of the island. Both the captain and museum docent were very knowledgeable and kept the passengers engaged for the entirety of the cruise. They even let each of the kids drive the boat for a few minutes!

My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.
My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.

Beach Trash

Hilton Head Island’s beaches are very clean and well maintained. And there are both trash and recycling cans up and down the beach. Even so, I still picked up about 300 pieces of trash during my week there. Of course, I logged these through Litterati (see also my post on Litterati). My next post will be about the types of trash I found and what you can do to prevent beach trash and ocean pollution!

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

All photographs in this post were taken by me except where otherwise indicated.