Won-ok and I began what started out as another glorious day back on April 17 exploring our beloved Sligo Creek in Wheaton, Maryland. Stopping at the stormwater retention ponds by Dennis Avenue, we delighted in the morning melody of songbirds and the sight of a red-breasted merganser repeatedly diving down into the water.
A flash of a great blue heron crossed the periphery of my binoculars. Our favorite bird, awesome!
Except that it wasn’t.
I trained my bins on it, or at least what was left of the majestic bird. I walked over and studied the remains. I’m only a novice naturalist but I sensed that this bird didn’t die of natural causes.
My stomach churned.
The day darkened when we got home and learned that volunteer trash removers with Friends of Sligo Creek reported finding a dead great blue heron closer to the University Boulevard stormwater retention ponds near where we live.
My wife and I most certainly knew that bird. The location is our favorite spot on the creek. We have spent countless hours there in ecstatic silence watching herons hunt – every photo and video we capture becoming our newest favorite memory. One of the dead blue herons could have been Ana, the one who inspired the name of our site, or a heron we watched hunt for an hour in March. It could have been the gregarious one, Norm, we met last year.
We grieved: One day, two dead great blue herons on Sligo Creek. And those are just birds who we know about. Who knows how many corpses we don’t find.
The murder weapon of choice?
The volunteers captured photos of the bird showing plastic stuck in its beak. Another local photographer, Dan Treadwell, promptly shared images he had previously captured of a living heron in the area with plastic around its beak. “I was pretty sure the trash would eventually kill the bird,” Treadwell told me. “It’s out of focus, but you can see in one picture that the trash was constraining the heron’s tongue. You can also see how the trash progressed further back on the heron’s beak as time went on. Not much that could have been done. I don’t think there’s any way that someone could get anywhere near the bird to cut off the plastic, so it was doomed.”
Spirited conversation shot through our community on list serves, social media, private emails and late-night eulogies. Ideas for how to respond poured into our watershed like the pollution that floods it after every rain: Install trash traps on the creek. Organize more mass creek cleanups. Encourage “plogging” — individual cleanups performed while exercising. Work with the county to stop more trash from escaping garbage and recycling trucks. They are all excellent ideas and we need to utilize every one of them.
But that’s not the best perspective for viewing plastic pollution.
The truth about the murders (calling them “deaths” is disingenuous) is that focusing on what to do about plastic pollution after it fills our creeks, rivers, bays and oceans is looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. We as a community in Sligo Creek and we as a nation must turn our gaze on ourselves and the choices we make as consumers. We can’t simply point to “trash” as the scapegoat for killing our waterways and all creatures that call them home. Of course snagging trash out of the creek feels great, but the act also serves as a pacifier. It soothes us into thinking that if we can just round up enough trash, the pollution problem will be solved.
It won’t. Band-aids can’t stop hemorrhaging.
We have to accept the fact that we are the ones responsible for creating this problem by rewarding big plastic producers and all the businesses – grocery stores, restaurants, retailers and more — that serve as environmental drug dealers more than happy to satiate our plastic addiction.
What does this mean? Let’s stop needless plastic from ever being produced.
It starts with all of us making more conscious and strategic choices every time we consider selecting what items we’re going to drop into our grocery carts. Stop buying so much bottled water. Refuse to buy lettuce in plastic containers. Don’t put a single piece of fruit in a plastic bag. Choose cans of your favorite beverage instead of plastic bottles. Speak to your grocery store managers and demand that they stock less plastic poison on their shelves.
Do the same at your favorite restaurant. If you order takeout and see plastic cutlery in the containers, hand it back; you’ve got forks at home. The same goes for the endless condiment packets you already possess. There are many other things we can do, too. Check out our initial outline of a comprehensive campaign aimed at solving the plastic pollution problem.
We have to open our eyes to the reality that our decisions lead directly from grocery carts and takeout menus to pollution that chokes our watersheds and wildlife – poisoning everything in them, including ourselves. No matter how well-intentioned we are about handling our trash after we’ve brought it home, we’re going to let way too much of it get away from us.
Use a plastic bag or buy a plastic bottle, kill a bird – that’s the reality.
It’s also one that we can change if we make more conscious decisions about what we buy.