Turning the tides

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2007

D ixie Belcher (DB), the founder of Turning the Tides, recently was interviewed by NoNurdles (NN) staff to discuss her work. Nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets. For more information visit NoNurdles.com. Here are excerpts from the interview:

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NN: How did you first become aware of the problem plastics pose to the environment?

DB: Living in Alaska, I have always felt deeply connected to the natural world. Someone sent me the DVD, "Our Synthetic Sea," which raised my awareness - considerably - about plastics in the ocean.

NN: How has the effort to reduce the use of plastic bags been received in Alaska?

DB: We are working toward a 15-cent fee on non-biodegradable bags. Two bills have been introduced to the Alaska Legislature - one in the House and one in the Senate - and we are lobbying to get them passed as quickly as possible.

The reception has been mixed. Some people are unaware and seemingly indifferent to the damage plastics are doing to the ocean, but for the most part we have encountered positive responses and genuine interest.

NN: Why do you think Europe is so far ahead of the U.S. in legislation regarding plastic bags?

DB: In many European countries (e.g. Germany), the debate over fees on plastic bags dates back to the 1970s and '80s. This has much to do with differences in demographics, geography and history. In Europe there are many people living together in a relatively small area. They have had more time to learn how to live closely together and preserve their communal living space.

NN: How do you explain such a contentious and complex issue in a way that wins support from the average person on the street?

DB: We invite speakers, give presentations, have booths at state fairs and events, show and distribute "Our Synthetic Sea," write weekly articles in our local newspaper and meet with students, churches and other local groups.

We built a boat out of 4,000 plastic bottles and lots of plastic bags called the "Plastic Poison", which won first prize in two 4th of July parades and was covered extensively in state and local media. It was featured on "Good Morning America" and in "In Touch" - a national People-type magazine. The boat has also appeared in fairs around Alaska.

NN: How do you respond to protests about convenience?

DB: Opponents of the fee on plastic bags say this is one more way Big Brother reaches into everyone's pockets. We counter this by pointing out that, ideally, no income would be generated. If the bills pass, it will be entirely up to individuals how to respond.

Basically, we are trying, through a statewide letter-writing campaign in support of these bills and other media campaigns, to build a grassroots movement that politicians can't ignore.

NN: Do you think it would be fair to say that the effort to ban plastic shopping bags, while important, is almost more symbolic? There seems to be so many sources of plastic debris, both on land and at sea. Why choose plastic bags?

DB: Plastic bags are a place to start. They're something that everyone can control in their personal lives. Also they are not a small issue - the world uses about one million plastic bags a minute. Getting rid of them would be huge.

We believe that once awareness is raised about plastic bags, it will be easier to move the focus to other plastics and chemicals damaging the health of the environment and us.

NN: With which organizations do you collaborate? Have you worked with faith communities? Schools?

DB: We're a fairly new organization - about two years old. We work with college and high school students statewide, and with a few grade school students locally. We also work with other small environmental organizations in Juneau, and we are in the process of reaching out to local churches.

NN: Have you made changes in your own lifestyle to reduce your use of plastic? If so, how? What has been rewarding and challenging in that regard?

DB: I no longer use plastic bags - but it has been quite an effort to remember to bring alternative bags and containers into a store. I've had to face how habitual I am. I don't use plastic water bottles and make an effort to buy only products in glass bottles - however, that isn't always possible.

Turning the Tides is planning to mount an effort this winter to encourage people to not buy anything made of or packaged in plastic for 3 months - and whenever that seems impossible, to save that piece of plastic for a sculpture we'll build at the end.

NN: Have you had any contact with the plastics industry? Why or why not?

DB: We've had phone calls from some very upset plastic-recycling manufacturers. We pointed out to them that less than 5 percent of all plastics ever get recycled, and then usually only once. Recycling is not the answer.

NN: Have you looked into the human health effects of plastics at all?

DB: Yes. Phthalates, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB), Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), fire retardant chemicals. Some of our weekly articles have addressed the issue of toxicity.

NN: What would you say to someone who wants to support your efforts?

DB: Please help us raise awareness of the impact plastic bags are having on the ocean. Please use cloth or canvas bags. Paper bags are really not an option - their production uses six times more energy compared to the production of plastic bags, and it pollutes rivers and oceans.

If you'd like to get involved with Turning the Tides, please contact Hildegard Sellner at hildegard.sellner@hotmail.com.

• Turning the Tides is a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit working to promote environmentally friendly living and alternatives to plastics. To contact the group, call 907-789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org.

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