Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What the Tide Dragged In: Too Many Plastic Toothbrushes

Plastic Toothbrushes Are Among the Drifts of Pollution Rolling in from the Ocean and Contaminating the Pacific Beaches in Costa Rica--Surfer's Paradise, Biodiversity Hotspot, and Important Nesting Area for Sea Turtles and Home to the Native People Who Depend on Them.
Plastic toothbrush stuck in the spot it was
found on Playa Ostional.
Most of the trash collected on these beaches is plastic.
Why do I keep this ridiculously large box filled with a colorful array of used and now seemingly useless plastic toothbrushes here in my home in Austin, Texas?
Well, I feel guilt about throwing them away, knowing that they will stay on Earth in our landfills forever. Ha! I envision this sacred box of toothbrushes, instead of fine dinnerware, being handed down through generations of my family as they wait for a "cure" to the plastic ill that will free them from this burdensome box of toothbrushes and stop the Earth from being overrun by toothbrushes.
I also keep them because I fear that they will find their way into our environment. I love surfing and do not want to surf in waters filled with trash, I and many family members have or have had cancer (cancer which may be partly the result of chemical exposure), and my beloved sea turtles, whales, and other marine sisters and brothers are turning up sick or dead with digestive systems full of plastic that they have ingested.
Olive Ridley sea turtle returns to the ocean after laying her eggs.
But what about prevention? What about stopping the madness and my collection of toothbrushes now? Recent statistics suggest that nearly half a billion toothbrushes end up in landfills every year in the United States alone...
I have put great effort into ending my use of any plastic, disposable products. But there are some things for which the alternatives seemed limited, expensive, or non-existent. I thought a plastic toothbrush was one of those things…kind of a necessary evil. The bristles inevitably wear. Sigh. I must continue to buy new toothbrushes to keep teeth in my mouth so that I can eat and have the energy to write all of this, perhaps boring you to tears. So, I have tried to breathe a second life into these old toothbrushes by using them for cleaning tight spaces and tile grout. Maybe I could create some 3D art with them? I will just carry this box of toothbrushes with me for the rest of my life, as crazy as that sounds...

About a year ago, when I first volunteered in Ostional, Costa Rica, for Estacion Biomarina Arribadas Ostional on a mission to do my part to save sea turtles, the plastic that I cleaned from the beach made a lasting impression on me. Why had that impression not been made years ago, when the fun summer weekends of my childhood and youth were spent on the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast (Galveston, Port Aransas, and South Padre Island), or  in my early adult life, when I have traveled to beaches around the world, surfing and snorkeling? It's not because the plastic trash was non-existent... Is it perhaps because of the captivating beauty of this beach or some magical hold it has on me? I don’t know, but I became desperate to further reduce my use of plastic... I had to do something for this special place.
Turtle art made from plastic debris collected on Playa Ostional.
This turtle is made of many soda bottle caps. How many caps
have I discarded in my lifetime?
Almost all the trash I collected during that trip to Ostional had washed ashore, I think likely from faraway lands or a gyre of floating plastic. Almost all of it was plastic…bottle caps, soda and water bottles, water, shards of all colors and sizes, straws, combs, forks, spoons, motor oil containers, toys, cosmetics containers, and toothbrushes. Some of those toothbrushes had been in the ocean a long time. How could I tell? They were worn rough from tumbling in the sand and surf. They were on their way to contributing to the now prominent microplastics issue
I thought about all the toothbrushes we use in our lifetime, about how what I throw in the trash in land-locked Austin, Texas, can affect a stunning and remote place like Ostional, about how connected we all are, about how dependent I am (and all of us are, without even knowing it) on this little place called Ostional and how dependent their (the people and the turtles) lives are on my (our) actions. And I thought about my box of toothbrushes…
The bogobrush is made of bamboo and is compostable.

When I returned to my city life in Austin, I had an again renewed passion to reduce my disposable plastic consumption in the face of a mile-a-minute culture, my culture, addicted to getting it done faster than the blink of an eye, sometimes without thinking about the collateral damage. I started to do more research, thinking that an alternative to plastic toothbrushes must exist. It was in this search that I stumbled upon an article about Bogobrush, a US-based company that had literally just started up and seemed to be living it right, that makes compostable toothbrushes, and that has the conscience to match the purchase of each bogobrush by giving a bogobrush to a free community health charity in Detroit, Atlanta, or Minneapolis. The handles of these brushes are a work of bamboo art--simple and beautiful. When the bristles wear out, yank them out and compost the handle. I was so excited to find an alternative!! And I started to think about how I could introduce these toothbrushes in Costa Rica and draw attention to the plastic pollution challenge we all face through a small-scale public and environmental health education outreach program. The focus of my volunteer trip in 2014 would be plastic pollution, its effects on Ostional (the community, the sea turtles, and the overall public health), and steps we can all take to reduce plastic pollution in our oceans. I bought bogobrushes to take to the school in Ostional, and for each one I bought to take to Costa Rica for these kids, one brush was donated by Bogobrush to a charitable community health clinic in Detroit.
The primary school in Ostional.
The tiny, isolated village called Ostional that is nestled along a small part of the stretch of beach that is also one of the most important nesting beaches in the world for Olive Ridley sea turtles has both a small primary and secondary schoolhouse. The long off-road ride to place with a slower pace in the rainforest of Guanacaste is worth it. I felt honored to be invited into the schools with my plan to discuss dental hygiene with the younger students and to discuss dental hygiene/public health, environmental health, and sustainable living with the older students.
Kira teaches students in Ostional about dental hygiene and
sustainable toothbrushes
Using a howler monkey puppet named Roberto, some chattering teeth, and a bogobrush, I made a presentation about the importance of teeth, the importance of brushing, and how to brush teeth properly. In doing so, I worked with the students on the English pronunciations of words pertaining to the topic. The students also drew pictures of their favorite animals with teeth, and we talked about how the bogobrush is different from a plastic toothbrush. With the students in the secondary school, I discussed the more-complicated issues of public health and the plastic contamination of the world’s oceans. We discussed the importance of the use of sustainable products, instead of disposable plastic products. We discussed the effect of plastic pollution on the lives of sea turtles and other marine animals as well as the effect of microplastic contamination on the fish we eat and on public health. I brought bogobrushes for the students of both schools.

Kira teaching in Ostional's primary school.
These students understand the challenge of plastic pollution and climate change more than I realize and see it on the beach that is so important to the livelihood of their community...one of the only places in the world where the sea turtle egg harvest by locals is legal. They realize that they, their turtles, our turtles, and the rest of the world face the challenge of contaminated oceans. This small village is the frontline protection for one of the most important Olive Ridley sea turtle nesting beaches in the world. The community and some volunteers work to keep the beach clear of plastic, but they have little control of the plastics and microplastic pollution in the water. They also work to recycle their own trash and to repurpose things as much as possible. The beach cleanup is a constant battle, one that often has me on my hands and knees in the scorching sun, picking up shard after colorful shard and on the verge of tears when I look ahead of me to see trash that continues for miles. The local children also understand that their choices impact the turtles and this important beach.
Plastic that washed ashore at Playa Ostional.
This relatively deserted (except for the community and the relatively rare tourists) enchanting volcanic black sand beach with exquisite deep blue Pacific waves and many days that surfers willing to make the trek love, rivers with mangroves, tall palms, colorful birds and rocks, butterflies like confetti is brimming with life and still holds the beauty of a yet to be fully touched paradise. The colors are real as unreal as they seem. At night, it is complete darkness, with more stars than most US city dwellers will see in a lifetime...frosting the sky like billions of shimmering diamonds. Kick the sand, and bioluminescence sparkles in front of you. And watch closely for the shadowy movements of prehistoric relics…these mother turtles…dinosaurs that exit the sea to lay their eggs and then vanish back into the sea before your eyes.

One night, I watched a turtle mama rambling up the beach in a trance, building her nest, laying eggs, and then methodically stumbling out to sea, exhausted. I sat with one of our other volunteers in the darkness and watched in silence. It was elevating, spiritual, moving in a way words can never describe…as I find it to be each time I witness this. It brings me to the present moment. It is the way it has been nearly forever...they are survivors, starting small and mighty and ending large and unstoppable.

Olive Ridley turtle returning to the sea after
laying eggs.
She completed her entranced mission, pounded the sand over her eggs in the way they "dance", and utterly exhausted turned to re-enter her home in the sea. On her way toward the water, she met a large chunk of plastic debris head on. The plastic piece was about 10 inches by 5 inches by 5 inches…about the size of a half-gallon jug of milk sticking up in the sand. She stopped after hitting it with her snout and let out what sounded like a huge gasp or a sigh. She was finally able to push her body over that piece of plastic. The elevated feeling of the whole process seemed stolen for a few seconds… It was stolen by something that is in so many cases, less necessary in our lives than we allow ourselves to believe...plastic... 

Ostional is a shining example of harmony and balance and the struggle to maintain that balance between the people of the village, the ocean, the sea turtles, and the land--perhaps an attempt at a sustainable loop that we can all learn from. But plastic pollution and climate change are two challenges brought on mostly by other parts of the world that stand to disrupt that balance...one that is, I think, more important to us than we know. Our health is connected to the health of those people and those turtles, and vice versa. Changing our plastic-use habits stands to ease the burden on these people and turtles that stole my heart. I am certain they would tug at your heart, too. Move forward...realize the strong connection between public health and the health of our environment...consider changing one toothbrush at a time....

Ostional puts on a show at sunset every evening. I hope I never
get tired of watching the sunsets.
#Plasticpollution #Oceanconservation #seaturtles #Ostional #Costarica #Keepworldbeachesclean #Bogobrush #sustainableliving #Oliveridley #Leatherback #worldpublichealth #dentalhygiene #prevention #plastictoothbrushes #Detroit #microplasticpollution #puravida #environmentalhealth

By Kira Watkins, MS in Public Health Communication from Boston University, volunteer for Estacion Biomarina Arribadas Ostional (CR), writer, surfer, and sea turtle lover

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