We haven't just paved paradise—we've plastered it in plastic
Annie Reneau

Two weeks ago, I was enjoying a leisurely seaside breakfast in Bali, watching the waves of the Indian Ocean roll in. It was an idyllic scene—palm trees, warm sun, turquoise waters—exactly the kind of place we call paradise.

As I sipped my coffee, my travel companion and I noticed a group of people gathered on the beach. They meandered along the shore, raking through the sand and placing things into a wheelbarrow. I thought perhaps they were treasure hunting, but a waiter told us they were picking up trash that had washed ashore overnight.

After breakfast, we walked along that same beach. Even after the big group cleanup, there was a lot that they'd missed. A few plastic bags here, a disposable diaper there.


The day before, we'd driven inland to Ubud, a village made famous by "Eat, Pray, Love," with its stunning temples, a sacred monkey forest, and beautiful Balinese architecture. As we soaked in the scenery, I was occasionally distracted by collections of trash built up in between buildings. So much packaging and so many water bottles in such a beautiful place.

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Of course I know our planet has a plastic problem—you'd have to live under a rock not to—but there is something particularly painful about seeing plastic pollution in paradise. It's one thing to be walking through a busy metropolis and see some expected rubbish on the street. It's another to be in a place of pristine natural beauty and feel wrapped in the tentacles of this petrochemical monster we have created.

I live on the U.S. mainland, with its vast stretches of land and plenty of space for out-of-sight landfills. Here, our garbage and recycling get dutifully tossed into separate containers, then magically disappear from our doorstep to be processed in some faraway facility that we never see. As much as I try to be ecologically conscientious, it's easy to hide the truth about my personal consumption and waste at home.

But in Bali, it's different. On an island about half the size of the big island of Hawaii, trash has nowhere to hide—and I find myself directly confronted with my own role in contributing to the overall problem.

For example, tourists in Bali are encouraged not to drink the tap water. Our hotel provided complimentary bottles of Nestle PureLife water—four bottles per day in our room, plus any more that we needed from the gym down the hall. I had brought my own stainless steel water bottle with me, but ironically the only way to fill it was from plastic water bottles. I kept multiplying how many bottles I drank by the 7 million tourists who visit Bali each year, and that math alone was mind-boggling. And that's just for water, which all of us need, especially in the heat of the tropics.

I tried to think of possible alternatives. Perhaps I should have brought my own personal water filter. Couldn't the hotels install central filtration systems? Would that be more expensive than bottled water? Does that matter at this point? There's no way that this level of plastic use can continue without the dire consequences we are already seeing.

Bali declared a "garbage emergency" in late 2017 and has since taken steps to mitigate its plastic problem, such as banning plastic bags in supermarkets. But there's still a long way to go. There simply aren't adequate recycling and waste processing facilities on the island, and those aren't things that can be built in a day—or without significant cost. Plus, as we've learned in my own highly developed country with plenty of waste processing abilities, recycling isn't actually the bastion of environmental hope we've made it out to be.

RELATED: Recycling was supposed to help save the planet. It's past time for us to rethink that idea.

Not all of the plastic washing up on Bali's shores comes from Bali itself. Currents bring waste from the larger Indonesian island of Java, where the capital of Jakarta is home to 10 million people (with triple that amount in the greater metro area). Indonesia is the second-largest plastic waste producer in the world, after China, and far too much of that plastic ends up in the ocean.

A few years ago, a video of a diver swimming through a sea of garbage off the coast of Bali went viral. Such an extreme was a bit of a fluke—there's not that much concentrated trash in that place on most days—but it was a wake-up call. My expat friend who lives in Jakarta says awareness in the region seems to be increasing. But isn't nearly where it needs to be to solve this problem.

The week after I visited Indonesia, I traveled to a rural area in Thailand. My friends and I took a boat ride out to a small, remote island in the middle of the Ping River, where an old monk lives by himself. The island has nothing but trees, some steep stone steps, a few small temples, and a solitary monk. Yet even on that remote island, the evidence of our plastic dependence was clear. A water bottle left along a stone wall. A basket of discarded plastic trash from others who visited the island before us.

Annie Reneau

It made me realize that there's practically nowhere in the world you can go now and not be surrounded by plastic waste. In under 70 years, the proliferation of plastic in our daily lives has transformed the planet so much. But it's not as though it's all evil. Plastic is an amazing invention, truly. But the costs we didn't account for are becoming more and more obvious. And the problem is so huge, it feels overwhelming.

As I step over another plastic bottle cap on the beach, I can't help but think about where all of this originated. It's not like the Balinese people—or Indonesian, or Chinese, for that matter—invented plastics. They were created in the U.S. and introduced to the rest of the world by the spread of Western industrialization. Bringing such a product to the developing world—one that makes life easier, more sanitary, more convenient—feels like progress. And it has been, in many ways. But with no thought of and no plan for handling the consequences, this is the result. Plastic has become part of daily life everywhere, but no one adequately prepared for the aftermath that would follow.

And when it comes to plasticizing paradise, it's not like the modern West isn't playing an active, ongoing role. We spent decades shipping our plastics overseas to China to be recycled. After they started rejecting our trash in 2017, we started sending more of it to Southeast Asia, where both legal and illegal recyclers and processors comply with environmental regulations to varying degrees. Basically, we've been using Southeast Asia as our dumpster, and I can't help but wonder how much of the trash washing up on Bali's beautiful shores may have originated in the U.S.

So what is the solution? That's the big question with no simple answers. We can certainly each do our part to reduce our impact, and we should. But it's going to take more than just individual efforts. Considering how our collective actions affect one another, I don't see how anything short of a unified, worldwide plan with the political and economic support of all nations will be enough to save paradise—and the rest of the world—from what we've done to ourselves.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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