I used to consider myself an avid recycler. I felt a sense of comfort and even superiority on occasion for being such a good steward of the planet. I would go to other places in the US and scoff when I didn’t see the blue recycling bins anywhere. I bristled with antipathy when I saw people throwing their plastic take-out containers in the trash. Didn’t they know how important it was to recycle? This blissful ignorance carried me along for many years. Until November 2017 when I received an alarming letter from my sanitation company.
The letter stated they would no longer take any plastics other than #1 and #2 PET and HDPE, basically bottles and jugs. What? Why? I immediately called my sanitation company to get the scoop. I was told China was no longer buying our plastic and the local recycling facility couldn’t process them. Wait. What? Back-up, you mean our plastic was being sent to China? Yep. And come to find out, this had been going on for years. How could I not have known about this? Although disturbed, I was leaving for Amritapuri in a couple days so this would have to be tabled until I returned. Or so I thought…
My second day at Amritapuri, I wandered over to the seva desk to find out what my assignment would be while I was there. You guessed it…recycling! I laughed at the irony. I showed up the next day and was in for a shock. I was overwhelmed at the amount of plastic being used and cried throughout my entire shift about the magnitude of human consumption. The beautiful thing about Amritapuri however, is they pretty much have recycling down to a science and approximately 98 % of all their waste is recycled. What a great example to the rest of the world!
“You know, you first have to clean up the plastic and garbage in your OWN mind before trying to clean it up in the world.”
After my seva, I just wanted to forget the pain I had experienced during my shift seeing all of the plastic waste. I decided to head into Vallikavu to take a walk around the town and forget about it. As soon as I reached the boat launch by the bridge, my heart sank. There was plastic everywhere in the water! I was completely devastated. Why hadn’t anyone picked it up? Why weren’t there any garbage or recycling bins anywhere? I was shaken but continued over the bridge into town as I pondered on what to do about the mess.
For a moment, I was able to forget about the garbage and lose myself in the magic of India. I could hear chanting from a nearby temple and tropical birds singing blissfully. The spiritual vibration was palpable and I was taken in by the beauty of Amma’s birthplace. Then I turned the corner and what I saw will remain forever imprinted in my mind. Plastic. Everywhere. Thousands of wrappers from western candy manufactures, water bottles, bags and other plastic packaging choking the waterways and littering the streets of this beautiful, sacred land. In that moment, I was overcome with grief and awareness of how our selfish consumption in developed nations was harming other nations and Mother Nature. In the US, it’s easier to turn a blind eye because we throw our evidence in the blue recycling bin and it magically ‘disappears.’ India doesn’t have the same infrastructure so the dirty truth is out in the open and the truth is, most plastics are not recycled. I had read about this in the news but it was something I needed to witness with my own eyes. I started weeping and talking to Amma as if she was in front of me, “Do you see this, Ammé? Why aren’t you doing anything about it? Something has to be done!” But what?
I was very upset and decided to talk to Swamini Krishnamrita about it. I enjoy talking to her because I know she’ll always be honest with me. I went to her office, sat down and started pouring my heart out. I asked if Amma was aware of the plastic problem in Vallikavu? I mean, she doesn’t get out much because she’s always giving darshan! Maybe she didn’t know! I proceeded to tell Swamini how dire the situation was, asking what could ‘we’ do about the world’s plastic problem? She listened patiently until I finished, then flashed me one of her radiant smiles and said, “You know, you first have to clean up the plastic and garbage in your OWN mind before trying to clean it up in the world. After all, the ‘world’ is only a reflection of your mind. That’s where you have to start.” Speechless, I slowly let the truth of her words sink in. The world didn’t need to change, I did.
I began watching my mind and saw how every judgment was a piece of plastic. Every angry thought, plastic. Every selfish act, plastic. Every feeling of superiority, plastic. Every streak of envy, plastic. Every feeling of self-pity, plastic. I also saw how easy it was to shift the blame and point fingers at causes outside of myself; large manufacturers’ need to change. The recycling industry needs to change. Other people need to change. But then I remembered what Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
In December 2017, After three blissful weeks at Amritapuri, I came home determined to look at my relationship to plastic in all aspects of my life. I started looking for ways to reduce my use of single-use plastics. I looked into DIY and zero waste options for many products I normally bought in plastic. I started buying in bulk. I looked for ways to reuse or repurpose things I would normally throw away. I was discovering I could do without many things I thought I needed before. I was slowly trying to ‘be the change.’
I also became actively involved in my community. I set up a small booth at the local farmer’s market to educate people on the recycling crisis and alternatives to single-use plastic. Many people asked how they could help, so Richard and I created a simple website, caringforourplanet.com, to refer them to. Since I live on the Oregon coast, I got involved with the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches for all people through a powerful activist network. Thus began my slow journey (at times, kicking and screaming) into civic engagement and activism. In November 2018, I was asked to coordinate the recycling, compost, waste and sustainability for Amma’s North American Tour.
Through all of this, I’ve had to come face to face with my anger and all the garbage lurking in my own mind. I’ve learned cleaning it up on the outside is the easy part, recognizing it and cleaning it up internally is where the real work begins.