When the Ikkatsu Project began ten years ago, the focus was on what we found on the beaches that we visited. Fishing gear, plastic bottles, foam insulation and industrial packaging: we did our surveys and dutifully wrote down what we saw. Kept score, you might say, and it’s something we continue to do on beaches from Puget Sound to Alaska.
Data is important but it wasn’t long before our guiding question changed a bit. Since we were becoming quite familiar with what was out there, the extended curiosity for that particular inquiry faded and was replaced by the search for what to do about the issue. It had been defined well enough by this time and while there will always be a place for straightforward data collection, thoughts turned at that point to what could be done to “fix” the problems associated with marine plastics.
It’s a mechanical view of nature and the world, the desire to use our human ingenuity to solve the problems that we have created for ourselves and our planet. “We are responsible for the situation and we will fix it,” and similar declarations are common among the environmental class these days. Politicians and business make agreeable noises while the rest of us continue on without noticing any actual fixes coming through. Sustainability is the buzzword that is in constant rotation, from Greenpeace to Unilever, and it sounds wonderful but means nothing in particular. Or, more precisely, it can literally mean anything.
It occurs to me that the question in front of us now, in 2022, is not simply about what is on the beach, nor how we plan to dispose of it. The questions now all begin with why:
Why is more plastic produced every year?
Why aren’t the companies responsible for producing the plastic also responsible for keeping it out of the ocean?
Why is the economy considered to be as important as the environment? (Even by “environmentalists.”)
Why do we value convenience so highly?
Why do we still talk about plastic recycling, as if it were a real thing?
Why do we say one thing and do the opposite?
If there is any real hope of actual progress in cleaning up our mess, these are some of the questions that each of us needs to be asking.