I’ll never forget my first breath underwater.I was 27 and living in Bushwick, the middle of industrial Brooklyn, when I decided to escape the city and head to Mexico with my friend and producing partner, Lucy, to shoot a documentary. She was an Australian water baby and I was a New York City kid, so she suggested I get PADI certified so we could dive together.Our instructor used the scuba gear as tools to help us understand the cycles of the ocean, connecting our breath to the tides and natural rhythms of the sea. He also explained that monitoring the levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen in our blood was just as critical as understanding the ocean’s own careful chemistry.
In those 48 hours, we learned to become guests of the ocean, to observe and wonder at our underwater environment, not to dominate or master it.
Fast forward five years — I was living in L.A. working on HBO’s Entourage, and playing a character who highlighted the glamorous life of Hollywood. The ocean felt far away, even though it was in our backyard. It was on the set of Entourage that I began to realize our level of conspicuous consumption was out of control. We were shooting scenes less than a mile away from shore, and yet no one ever thought about the damage that our trash was wreaking on the ocean.
I’ll admit, sometimes I forgot, too. It’s difficult when plastic is the norm.
While my character, Vincent Chase, indulged in the extravagant Hollywood lifestyle, offscreen, I’d always preferred more intimate dinner parties surrounded by close friends. Not too long ago, I invited a few people over for a casual evening. Our conversations are usually intellectual, creative, and invariably, devolve into humorous stories.
IN THOSE 48 HOURS, WE LEARNED TO BECOME GUESTS OF THE OCEAN, TO OBSERVE AND WONDER AT OUR UNDERWATER ENVIRONMENT, NOT TO DOMINATE OR MASTER IT.
But not that night. Instead, someone brought up a photo I had posted on Instagram of beached whales, their stomachs found filled with plastic. As we discussed how our choices as consumers can lead to horrible stories, someone plucked a plastic straw from their glass, identifying it as a culprit. So we investigated.
The results were staggering. In the U.S. alone, we throw out 500 million plastic straws every single day. That’s enough plastic to wrap around the earth two and a half times each day. Straws break down into small particles that are attractive to — and unfortunately consumed by — fish.
Since that night, I’ve stopped buying straws and have started asking servers, baristas, and bartenders not to serve them to me. It’s a simple request that is in my control, and it helps me start a conversation around ocean health. And that matters.
Because if we don’t change our habits, there will be nearly more plastic than fish in our seas by the time my generation’s grandchildren are able to take their first swim lessons.
So, what do you see when you look in the mirror each morning? I’m willing to bet that for most of you, “environmentalist” isn’t the first, or even the fifth, word you’d use to describe yourself. I want to change that.
This year, there was an exciting increase in attention to our environment thanks to a successful gathering of politicians and thought leaders, like my idols, Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle, at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. But even though there is more news coverage today, I still feel like there’s a lack of power for individuals to make changes on a more personal level.
This is where you, the environmentalist, come in. Tackling plastic pollution alone, even as a celebrity, isn’t effective. We need to do this together.
WITH YOUR VOICE, YOU HAVE THE POWER TO START A CONVERSATION ABOUT PLASTIC POLLUTION AT EVERY MEAL, ON EVERY DATE, AND AT EVERY HAPPY HOUR.
Two years ago, my diving and producing partner, Lucy, resurfaced in my life, calling to tell me about this whale, this lonely whale. She told me the story of a solitary creature that has called out to no response for more than 30 years, and asked me to join her in answering it. So I did.
When I first joined the Lonely Whale team, I spent hours poring over books, studies, articles, art, learning everything I could about the ocean and its connection to climate change.
While I was feeling increasingly excited about my newfound knowledge, not everyone enjoyed hearing about it.
“Did you know that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our ocean? [And], that your plastic straw could end up lodged in a turtle’s nose?” can sometimes be conversation killers.
That’s when I started to feel the disconnect. I felt the solitude the Lonely Whale must feel when it calls out year after year in the hopes that someone will answer its call for companionship.
Technology has done such an efficient job at letting us hide from one another and hide from our environment. I see it every day on the streets of New York: eyes glued to our phones, stepping over bags of trash on the streets. But where is the trash on Instagram?
Our lonely moments and our trash-covered coastlines just aren’t fit to post. This silencing of a very real aspect of our daily experience is dangerous. It not only erodes our relationships with one another, but it also quite literally erodes our environment.
WE HAVE THE TOOLS IN OUR HANDS TO CREATE AND SHARE THE CHANGES WE MAKE.
But we have the tools in our hands to create and share the changes we make. We’ve seen it in practice. All it takes is a camera and an internet connection to shift culture. I truly believe that if we share our struggles, we can overcome them together. That was one of the driving factors in my establishment of the Lonely Whale Foundation.
The ocean is often cast as female in stories, with tales of sirens and goddesses controlling the tides. In my personal experience, that narrative has rung true.
From my first breath underwater with Lucy, to diving the deep with Sylvia Earle, one of the leading ocean thought leaders, women continue to lead me to the sea. I am so grateful to the female explorers in my life who’ve led me to where I am today, namely the strong, independent woman who raised me.
I want to continue to support female activists, and hope that by starting with a small, singular task like refusing straws, I can encourage each one of you to embrace your inner environmentalist.
IN THE U.S. ALONE, WE THROW OUT 500 MILLION PLASTIC STRAWS EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Yes, there are plenty of other critical ocean health concerns, from noise pollution to the warming of the waters — but whether we use plastic straws or not is one thing we can control. To be clear, I’m not saying that we have to give up straws altogether, simply plasticstraws. There are so many sustainable alternatives today, from glass to bamboo to paper to metal, for both individuals and businesses.
So, while it is a small change, refusing plastic straws is also a crucial step in supporting an individual-led culture of conscious sustainability. If every twenty- and thirtysomething declined plastic or opted for a sustainable straw each weekend, we could eliminate 500 million plastic straws every month.
Share your story of the straw. Share it with a friend, share it with the Lonely Whale, share it with the world online and let’s push forward with an impactful, plastic-free wave of change. You have the power to post and flood the internet with a wave of content that will challenge and enrich the world, not just indulge our desire for distractions.
With your voice, you have the power to start a conversation about plastic pollution at every meal, on every date, and at every happy hour. Use your strong female voice to call out like the sirens you are and refuse straws.