My family spent last weekend at Myrtle Beach. With its towering beachfront hotels and blocks of souvenir shops and attractions, Myrtle Beach is not exactly my vacation destination of choice. But the thousands of hotel rooms mean cheap lodging in the off-season, and we have had a fall weekend getaway there a handful of times over the years.
This year, after six months of pandemic-living, we were all especially eager for the trip. “It will be great to have a change of scene,” I told a friend. “And some family time.” Then I laughed, because one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been that “family time” is pretty much all we ever have. But family time at the beach is a far cry from the quotidian routine of online work and school, and we spent an amazing weekend building sandcastles, swimming, reading, and generally kicking back. My kids even talked me into riding the Sky Wheel, an oceanfront ferris wheel that is the second highest in the country, then giggled as I clutched their hands and swore.
On Sunday afternoon, sitting on our balcony overlooking the ocean from fourteen stories up, my husband hit the nail on the head. “Myrtle Beach is just like this hotel,” he said. “Great and terrible at the same time.”
It was easy to see what made it great. After the hotel lost our original reservation and I spent an hour on the phone as they tried to track it down, we were given a complimentary upgrade to the beachfront suite. We went to sleep to the sound of the waves, and, in the morning, the ocean was only steps away. The kids loved the heated pools that they had all to themselves, and the miniature golf course, with its caves and cliffs and Peter Pan storyline, was one of the best we’d ever played.
The terrible part was more subtle, but it was a blight on an otherwise wonderful stay. A take-out breakfast was included with our room, to be eaten at dispersed outdoor tables or taken back to the room. The breakfast itself was fine: fruit and granola, eggs and grits. But I was dismayed by the amount of waste each meal generated. The hot meal was served in a styrofoam container, the cold sides in a separate plastic one. Not only was the cutlery single-use plastic, but it came wrapped individually in plastic film. And then there were the plastic packages of hot sauce and ketchup, the plastic lids for the drinks, the plastic coffee stirrers, the plastic bags you could use to carry everything back to your room. And all this at a hotel just steps away from an ocean that by 2050 could hold more plastic garbage than fish.
Did I eat the breakfast? Shamefully, I did. Knowing that breakfast would be provided, I had not brought breakfast food to cook in our small kitchenette, and I did not want to spend part of my short vacation hunting down a grocery store in Myrtle Beach. I ate it, but I was ashamed. Ashamed, because, like so many Americans, I was willing to put my own convenience ahead of my values. Ashamed that I would choose to drink a cup of coffee or use a plastic fork, knowing that both would endure for centuries or more. Yes, it was shameful, but it was also infuriating. Whether I chose to eat that breakfast or not, an obscene amount of plastic waste was being generated every morning by countless other hotel guests.
I am sickened that even now, half a century after the first Earth Day, this is still the choice we as consumers face in states like North Carolina that have not made any attempt to regulate plastic waste. As an individual, trying to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics takes constant vigilance. Sit down in a restaurant with a child under ten and without fail their water will come in a disposable cup, complete with plastic lid and straw. Back when we still went out to eat, I had to train myself to say, the moment the server appeared, that we did not want Styrofoam or straws. With Covid restrictions now eliminating dine-in options in many places, more restaurants than ever are serving food in disposable packaging with single-use cutlery.
I know in some states things are slowly changing. Maine has banned polystyrene containers and California and Hawaii, plastic bags. New York City, among other localities, has prohibited plastic straws. But in North Carolina, sadly, there seems to be little awareness of this critical issue, which can make resisting disposable plastics feel lonely, futile, and even embarrassing. I don’t want my kids to look away when the first thing out of my mouth at a restaurant is “We’re trying to reduce our plastic waste, so no Styrofoam or plastic, please.” I wish they were growing up in a world in which serving single-use plastics was the thing that drew attention, instead of being the one person out of a hundred (or more) refusing them.
After my poor choices last weekend, I have renewed my personal vow to refuse single-use plastic and Styrofoam. I will never again travel without reusable silverware packs for us all. But I also recognize that institutionalized changes have to be implemented if real progress is to be made. Yes, my family can stop buying an occasional ice-cream treat at Sonic because it is served in a Styrofoam cup (and yes, I already wrote a letter to Sonic begging them to reconsider their packaging), but that won’t make a dent in the thousands of pounds of non-biodegradable garbage they generate each year. When my family refuses to use plastic straws, that’s a meaningful choice, but it can seem futile when every other cup in a restaurant holds one.
One of my favorite things to do at the beach is to go for long walks along the shore. I love watching how much everybody loves the ocean: the teenagers in their bikinis, the toddlers in their sun hats, the elderly couples with their dogs. But while most people are looking for shells, I can’t help scanning the sand for what I know I’ll find: plastic lids, plastic straws, plastic bags, plastic cigarette butts. By the time we reach the garbage can by the boardwalk that leads back to the hotel, my hands are full.
(This photo is stock. It's not Myrtle Beach or mine. But it doesn't matter.)