Environmental Impressions of Southern California

We recently returned from several days in southern California, and it treated us well, especially with the weather which stayed in the mid-eighties and low-nineties with practically no humidity.  The people were polite as well, and I couldn’t get over how relaxed the traffic was every time we went out onto the road. Granted we were mostly in a suburb of Anaheim and along the coast, so we didn’t have to experience the traffic of L.A. proper, which is one of only three cities known to have comparable or worse traffic than Houston. Regardless, relaxed and polite driving is one of the things for which I have to commend southern California because I don’t think I have ever been so happy to drive below the speed limit or let people merge in front of me as I was on our outings this past week. It made the trip all the more relaxing. That wasn’t all of course; a few impressions stuck with us throughout the week in addition to the chill drivers.

Water Conservation

One was the notices and reminders for conserving water. The rest of the country including our neighborhood sees reports of droughts and wildfires lighting up California on the news, and I can’t imagine how devastating they truly are when we live somewhere that is so humid that the trees sweat. My partner and I try to conserve water when we think about it through little actions like turning off the faucet while we brush our teeth, but that doesn’t really cut it in California. The most impressive reminder that I saw on our trip, which I would have loved to see everywhere, was a toilet that had two flushing options–one for, well, number one and another for, you guessed it, number two.  The small placard said it used less water for the first option and asked you to flush responsibly. Add to it that this was in the public restroom at the Aquarium of the Pacific, and it makes it all the more significant when thinking of water conservation.

Seriously, though, there are reminders everywhere. In the hotel bathroom, at dining tables, on the side of the highway, on billboards, at the outlet mall, in public restrooms–you name it and they likely have a reminder somewhere nearby to encourage people to think about their water consumption. And it worked. I tried to be more aware of how I used water. I’m hoping we can keep those ideas in mind when we return to our usual routines.

Smog

When we arrived in Anaheim, we rented a car to drive to Garden Grove, which took about 40 minutes on two highways. We didn’t notice much in the way of scenery except that their palm trees were much taller than ours in Houston. Much taller. It was a drizzly, overcast day, however, so it wasn’t until the clouds lifted and it heated up that we saw there were mountains practically surrounding us. On our first outing we noticed that they made a beautiful horizon on the other side of the haze that covered the city, which began to dissipate as we made it closer to the coast. On our way back into the city we noticed that the haze had taken on a yellow tint with the occasional brownish color where it sat near the mountains on the other side of the city. That’s when we realized we were seeing smog.

smog_picnik
Photo credit scpr.org

Neither of us has ever experienced smog before, and it was a little odd. The mountains were smaller but made for a lovely scenery except that every vista had a thin layer of yellow at its base. This was only noticeable at far distances but it dawned on us that the city had a layer over it that we didn’t notice up close and hadn’t even recognized the first day we arrived. It’s difficult to grasp the impact that human life can have on the environment until we see it firsthand, and smog is a prime example. It is not naturally occurring but instead a mixture of chemicals such as exhaust from cars and power plants along with consumer chemicals from aerosol cans, paints, solvents, and many other items. It is the result millions of cars driving in a tight space, millions of people making their commutes, and hundreds of millions of consumer products. And southern Californians breathe it in every day. It’s a simple cause that is difficult to eliminate and even more difficult to deny when a beautiful horizon looks like you are viewing it through a hipster Instagram filter.

It made us thankful for the fresher air along our coast back home.

Plastic Bags

We had thought California has a state-ban on plastic bags (or sacks depending on your dialect), so we were surprised that we got two when we needed items at the store. One came from Target and the other from Walgreens. As we waited at the airport, a video came across one of my social media news feeds that featured Ed Begley, Jr. petitioning for people to vote to keep California’s state-wide ban of plastic bags. So we’re still confused as to the state’s official stance, but at any rate it made us happy to see that states were at least trying to institute new or keep existing bans on plastic bags. We switched to cloth bags about half a year ago, and, though we occasionally forget to take them on unplanned trips, we have drastically reduced the number of plastic sacks we have brought home. We even occasionally think we need one and must come up with a different solution because we’ve run out altogether.

Many people do not understand the impact of plastic bags, which is detrimental to the cloth bag movement. First, many recycling programs, especially curbside or door-front programs that pick up your recycling with your trash, do not recycle plastic bags. Unlike some items, plastic sacks can be difficult to process because of their composition so they cannot be simply tossed into the recycling once you finish unpacking your groceries. This was surprising to us, and I still am trying to figure out a way to recycle them. Mostly, when we end up with them, we hang on to them until we can reuse them. On this trip, for example, we double wrapped our shampoo and such bottles to ensure they didn’t leak into the bag (and it was a good thing we did). But we’ve eliminated most activities that require a plastic bag. I used to put the cat litter into a plastic baggie and then a plastic bag to carry it to the trash chute, but that’s just reintroducing the plastic bag into a landfill. If it’s going into the chute, there’s no need for a bag, so it just goes with the single baggie. (I am still on the lookout for an alternative to this disposal of cat litter with a plastic baggie, so please let me know if you have figured one out that eliminates the use of plastic!)

The second issue is that plastic bags are thin and easily discarded accidentally in the trash process. The wind whips them out of cars or trash sacks; they fall out of our storage containers or they are pulled from our grasp before they make it into the trash can. No matter the cause, it is not uncommon to see plastic bags in the street or in the ocean, and it is in the biggest bodies of water that they do the most damage. Imagine how a thin plastic bag appears in ocean waters as it is carried by the currents in a sunny location, little movements looking slow as the handles dangle and cause the bag to expand and then contract. To unsuspecting ocean life, a plastic bag looks very similar to a jellyfish, and they won’t realize the mistake until it is too late.

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Plastic bags in water on the left and jellyfish in water on the right–could you tell the difference? (Photo credit to Algalita Marine Research and Education)

Animals from the ocean have been found to have all sorts of pollution in their stomachs, and we have no one but ourselves to blame for it ending up there.

If the lack of recycling potential doesn’t spur you to try cloth bags, keep in mind that each plastic bag you bring home has the potential to harm or even kill a sea turtle just by being carried out to sea by the wind.

Unfortunately, Texas doesn’t have a ban on plastic bags, and I doubt they’ll consider one soon. But we give props to California for making that step, doing their part to eliminate an unnecessary convenience that is easily replaced with a little forethought, and reducing the impact we have on ocean life.

If you are interested in learning more about California’s plastic bag ban, you can read about the measures in place and upcoming votes for changes. If you would like to discover ways to reuse plastic bags instead of letting them go straight to the landfill, check out this website for ideas on how to use them around the house.

Warnings about Chemicals

In most buildings we entered, including our hotel and the aquarium, there were signs off the side of the entrances that warned that the facilities contained chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects. The rate at which we saw these signs was a little disturbing but not surprising when you consider all that goes into a single unfurnished building, let alone a furnished one. What surprised me most with the signs was that I had assumed everyone knew such chemicals were everywhere; at least, I feel like they are. If we started labeling everything that was toxic or dangerous to our health–which should be the case rather than labeling what is safe or healthy as is the case–we would have to label everything! But this wasn’t the case. So we guess the signs only apply to certain chemicals, but the thought was a welcomed one. To see public places doing the reverse of the common mindset was refreshing. Still disturbing, however, was a sign at H&M making this statement with a single word beneath it: sunglasses. You know, those plastic frames most of us put on our faces every day.

We liked a lot of aspects about southern California. The ocean water was beautiful and much cleaner and bluer than what we have in Galveston, the people were nice, and the weather was perfect. In the end, however, we were ready to get back home where the drivers give you a headache in just a 15-minute commute, plastic bags are in every store, and water conservation is nowhere near a requirement.

Have you had any realizations or strong impressions when visiting a different region or country that have changed your way of thinking?

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