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Eight years ago Anna Cummins attended a lecture about marine pollution. She was shocked to learn about the sea of plastic trash floating between Hawaii and California dubbed the "great Pacific garbage patch." "I was an environmentalist, but even I didn't realize how bad it was," says Cummins.
It's estimated that 80 percent of marine trash starts on land. Plastics are especially toxic since they act as a sponge for chemicals like motor oil and DDT. "I began to think about what I could do to help," Cummins says. She realized she could make a small dent in ocean pollution by starting close to the source -- the people in her own Santa Monica neighborhood.
Cummins wanted them to embrace reusable bags and cups, but instead of trying to change individual habits she got local stores involved. She went to a merchants' association meeting and pitched her bring-your-own idea. "It's a small change that adds up to a big difference," she says. "Every time you reuse a bag or cup it's one less piece of plastic that could end up in the sea."
A representative from Patagonia who was at the meeting loved Cummins's campaign. The company awarded her a grant and donated 200 reusable bags that were printed with her "Bring Your Own" logo and distributed at schools and farmers' markets. Cummins even created an eco-themed website, BringYourOwn.org, where she writes about plastic pollution and has sold more than 500 reusable produce bags.
That life-changing lecture by the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation also motivated Cummins to volunteer for the organization. In 2008 she helped build the Junkraft, a boat, made of 15,000 discarded plastic bottles, that sailed from Los Angeles to Hawaii. The following year she biked 2,600 miles down the West Coast and met with universities, mayors, and corporations along the way to spread her message to end plastic pollution. "Preventing this problem will take a long time, but I'll never give up," says Cummins. "I know we can make an impact."This Month's Challenge
Clean up a beach, waterfront, or town park. Organize a group cleanup day through your local government or chamber of commerce or check out the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that supports water-quality regulations and water-testing activities, at surfrider.org. To reduce waste in the first place, bring your own reusable sacks, water bottles, and coffee mugs. Keep a stash in your car so you don't forget!
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2010.