The ocean may seem endless, but plastic is forever.
So appears the world to singer and songwriter Jackson Browne, who, while gearing up for a tour that kicks off next week at the Civic Auditorium, has keyed in aggressively to one of the most urgent environmental issues that our planet faces: plastic contamination.
“The world is literally filling up with things that are designed to be used once and which never go away,” Browne told the Santa Cruz Weekly. “Plastic bags are blowing around the Sahara desert. Camels are dying of starvation with their guts full of plastic.” Browne says personal friends of his who have surfed on every continent have reported plastic bags washed up on beaches in Antarctica.
Browne and his traveling crew have weaned themselves off most disposable plastic items, including water bottles, and though Browne won’t be heavily pushing the campaign from the stage, others will—namely Save Our Shores, which will present Browne with an Ocean Hero award during his pre-concert sound check. Save Our Shores and the city of Santa Cruz have also designated Feb. 23 as “Jackson Browne Day” to honor the veteran singer’s anti-plastic campaign.
The planet’s plastic crisis is perhaps most poignantly illustrated by the alarmingly real conglomeration of petro-trash that has accumulated in the central Pacific Ocean, swept up in an endlessly spiraling gyre of non-biodegradable refuse. Sea birds eat the trash, as do sea turtles, which activists believe mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. In one study, 37 percent of necropsied sea turtle corpses contained plastic in their intestines, according to Save Our Shores’ executive director Laura Kasa. Marine mammals also become entangled in drifting rubbish, and local sea otters have been photographed with bags cinched over their heads.
“Clearly, the world’s capacity to receive our shit is not unlimited,” says Browne, who has confidence that the public is coming around to understand the urgency of the matter—especially in the Bay Area, which he calls “an incredible cultural engine.”
“People know about this,” he says. “It’s not a complicated thing. All the plastic the world has ever made is still out there. It doesn’t go anywhere because it doesn’t break down.”
The problem begins everywhere—in developed and developing countries alike and in groceries stores large and small, whether “eco-friendly” and “green” or shamelessly corporate. Bags are dispensed with almost every takeout meal served in America, and an increasingly large amount of water is now sipped from plastic bottles. Browne himself now carries an aluminum bottle that he fills from taps.
Browne fully awoke to the Earth’s plastic plague while touring in 2008.
“I saw how many bottles we were using,” he says. “There were stacks 6 feet high behind stage.”
Browne, like millions of people worldwide, has voluntarily banished the one-time-use bag and bottle from his life, but nobody in California has been required to do so—though we almost were. In late August, the state Senate voted down AB 1998, legislation that would have banned plastic bags at most checkout counters statewide. In response, Save Our Shores has focused its efforts at the local level, pushing a measure aimed at illegalizing plastic carry-out shopping bags at all stores and retailers in Santa Cruz County. Kasa is confident the Board of Supervisors will approve the ban, which will go to vote once its backers produce an environmental impact report, perhaps as soon as April.
Kasa believes the time for such action is long overdue. Ireland, India and China have taken legislative strides against the wanton dispersal of plastic bags, which Californians use at a rate of about 20 billion per year.
“I’m a little embarrassed to be in a country that hasn’t done something about plastic bags yet,” Kasa says.
Kasa says that once carry-out bags have been addressed, so-called “produce bags”—which consumers use to bag fruits, vegetables and bulk grains for transporting from store to home—may become the next target of local anti-plastic campaigners.
Though some elected officials may resist a ban, Kasa believes the tide is turning. “We’ve realized it won’t pass yet at a state level, but we believe (the ban) has a good chance at the local level,” she says.
Browne recognizes the metaphorical notion favored by poets and songwriters that the sea is boundless. But in the plastic age, the buildup of trash in the ocean has served as a figurative depth gauge—and the bounds of the sea, he says, have been reached.
“This is a critical moment in our planet’s life,” he says. “Plastic was a big mistake, and we need to do something about it.”