Updated: Jan 3, 2019
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 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 Tetra Pak cartons of any kind. What? Why? My almond milk, half and half and vegetable broth all came in ‘Tetra’ packs which I thought were recyclable! I got on the phone lickety-split to the 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 this?Although disturbed, I was leaving for Amritapuri, India to visit the ashram of my spiritual teacher (Amma) 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 (service/volunteer) desk to find out what my assignment would be while I was there. You guessed it…recycling! I chuckled 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 at 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 actually recycled. What a great example to the rest of 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 some retail therapy would be the perfect anesthetic so I headed into Vallikavu, the town near the ashram. The anesthetic worked for about three minutes but disappeared as soon as I reached the boat launch by the bridge. There was plastic everywhere in the water! I was dumbfounded. Why hadn’t anyone picked it up? Why wasn’t there any garbage or recycling bins anywhere? I was shaken but continued over the bridge into town as I pondered over 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. Beautiful flowers and lush vegetation reminded me I was somewhere exotic and far away. Brahminy Kites flew overhead and I was taken in by the beauty of Amma’s birthplace. Then I turned the corner. What I saw will remain forever imprinted in my mind. Plastic. Everywhere. Hundreds of wrappers from 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 needs as consumers for convenience were destroying Mother Nature. In the US it’s easier to turn a blind eye because we can throw our evidence in the big, blue recycling bin and it magically disappears! We’re doing our part, right? In India, there are no blue bins. The dirty truth is out in the open and the truth is, only 9% of all plastics ever created have been recycled*. I had read about this on the news and seen it on TV but I needed to witness it with my own eyes. I started weeping and talking to Amma as if she was in front of me, “Do you see this? Why aren’t you doing anything about this? What are we going to do about this situation?” Something had to be done! But what?
I was upset and decided to talk to Swamini Krishnamrita (One of Amma's senior Swamis) about it. I love 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 anymore because she spends her time hugging people! 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 just listened while flashing me one of her radiant smiles that light up the room. Then she 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.” Ka-BAM! I knew she was right as that powerful truth slowly sank 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; Coke and Pepsi need to change. Tetra Pak needs to change. The recycling industry needs to change. But I remembered what Wayne Dyer once said, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
After three blissful weeks at Amritapuri, I came home in December 2017 determined to look at my relationship to plastic in all aspects of my life. I started making my own broth instead of buying it in a Tetra Pak. I know! How radical! I found almond milk in a carton that could actually be recycled. I asked the manager at my local grocery store if she’d be willing to order milk in glass bottles instead of ‘Tetra’ packs. I explained my concern about the new recycling protocol in our city. She said yes! Now I return the glass to the store when I’m finished and get a $2.00 rebate toward my next bottle. I started buying in bulk. I needed a new toothbrush so I chose one made from bamboo instead of plastic. I was changing the way I looked at things and the things around me began changing.
As I move forward on my journey to reduce my plastic footprint, I’m starting to find the joy in it! My creativity and imagination have been fired as I think of new ways to shop and reuse things. I’ve gotten involved with other like-minded people in my community and collaborated on ways to make things better. Learning to do without some of the things I thought I needed is liberating me. Through this process, I’m not only cleaning up the plastic in the world, I’m cleaning it up in my mind which is most important.
- Diya Heal