Posted by: Ken Homer | April 20, 2008

Earth Day – Taking Action on Plastic Bags

I was in the eighth grade when the first Earth Day was held.

Somewhere in the piles of books around here is a paperback first edition of The Environmental Handbook.

I’d like to say that it is dog-eared and well worn, but in fact I can’t recall doing more than giving it a fairly cursory glance.

Back in junior high school, in a small town in Maine, the thought that the cycle of the seasons could be knocked off its axis, that the fish in the sea could vanish, that the forests that seemed to stretch forever could disappear, or that our air might become so polluted that respiratory aliments would reach pandemic proportions, was the stuff of science fiction, and nut jobs putting forth wacky, end-of-the-world fantasies.

But reading the newspapers lately, each of these things seems to have either already come to pass, or appear very likely to become features in the world’s landscape that I will wander through in my lifetime.

As young man of 20, I spent a year on an isolated coral atoll half way between Honolulu and Midway.

French Frigate Shoals was small – 3100 feet long by 410 wide, flat and six feet above sea level. It was stark, a tiny strip of blinding whiteness nearly lost in the vast, blue Pacific.

The joke in the Coast Guard was: What’s the worst they can do to me? Ship me off to French Frigate Shoals?

Though there were some who found it a kind of personal hell, I was not among them.

I read an article about the island in my local paper when I was 14 and somehow, I knew my destiny was bound up on that little spit of land. Six years later I volunteered to go.

I’ve never regretted a moment of the 11 months, 17 days six hours and 43 minutes I was there.

I found it an astonishingly beautiful place. Pristine is a word that springs readily to mind, though I know even now I am romanticizing it.

Home to 18 men, two dogs and some 35,000 birds, it was hardly a tropical paradise.

Hawaiian Monk Seals (now endangered) patrolled the lagoon along with sting rays and sharks. We swam anyway, the coral was amazing and the fishing was great.

The island is breeding ground for the majestic Laysan Albatross (endangered)  a.k.a. the “Gooney bird” – so named for its poor landing skills. The opportunity to watch these birds mate, incubate, hatch, shed their gray down and become great white fliers who will spend their first seven years at sea before returning to the Shoals to mate was a privilege that few get to experience.

We also witnessed the hatching of the Green Sea Turtles (endangered) and their race from the sand above the high tide line into the safety of the ocean amid the onslaught of hungry birds after a tasty morsel.

Now, only 30 years later, my beautiful island is under siege,  and much of the life it supports is threatened with extinction. Plastic bags are a large part of the reason.

Flooded in plastic waste, French Frigate Shoals, like many other Pacific Islands, is another victim of convenience and consumer culture. A remote, wild place seemingly so far removed from everything is, in fact, intimately connected to us all.

The statistics don’t all agree, but there is a mass of plastic roughly twice the size of Texas floating around in the Pacific Ocean. Twice the size of Texas…

That’s over 500,000 thousand square miles of plastic waste!

It boggles my mind for sure, but far worse – it hurts my heart to think of it. 

When I was a kid there was a commercial that ran on TV portraying an Indian walking around a landscape divided by highways, with cars zipping about, the people carelessly tossing litter out of their windows, and the trash piling up along the roadways.

I don’t remember the voiceover, but I’ll never forget the tears falling from the man’s eyes as he looked upon land his ancestors from only a few generations previous, knew as a clean and pristine place.

Today, I am the one shedding the tears as I think of what we have done to our oceans, our land and our air. To the place we call our home.

I am staggered when I consider how much damage has been done in half century I have been around. 

I could not find any videos, showing the current state of my beloved island refuge. But I did happen on this one shot at Midway, a close neighbor, as neighbors in that part of the world go, being only a few hundred miles west.


Next time you throw out a plastic bag, picture in your mind the 500,000 square miles of plastic refuse floating around the Pacific.

We need to do better – we can do better – we will do better.

How big is the market for biodegradable packaging?

Here are three resources you can use to begin to eliminate plastic waste from your life:




  1. Wow. I tried to bring my cloth bags to Walmart, but they can’t use them on those carousels.

    Can you imagine a news story like that on tv in a Bush administration?

  2. I suspect that is why it is a BBC news production. If you check it out on youtube this video only has about 1,000 people who have viewed it.

    I trust that once people really see the consequences of their actions they will make the changes needed.

    Thanks for visiting.

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