There really is no “away” any more. Recently I attended an illustrated lecture by the Canadian photographer Chris Jordan, about the albatrosses of Midway Island. Tiny Midway is the breeding ground for thousands of pairs of the albatross, or frigate bird. Midway also sits right smack in the middle of the enormous Pacific Garbage Patch, which attracts and holds the floating waste of all the countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. Albatrosses catch live fish to feed to their young, but they are also scavengers. So these magnificent birds collect an incredible assortment of floating plastic objects, to take back to the waiting chicks. Cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, plastic toys, dental floss and makeup containers, pill bottles, bits of Styrofoam and the thousand other plastic objects that have become part of our lives. The adults then feed these items to the chicks. The chicks cannot pass them and cannot regurgitate them, so their stomachs slowly fill with the detritus of our convenience until they starve to death. In the tropical climate of Midway, the albatross chick carcasses quickly disappear and what is left is a neat little multicolored pile of plastic.

One of the most common albatross stomach ingredients, both in volume and number, is plastic caps from beverage containers.

I am still absorbing the personal implications of Jordan’s horrendous story. In the meantime, whenever I buy something that is packaged in plastic, I do my best to leave the packaging with the store clerk. It’s a lousy thing to do to the eighteen-year-old making minimum wage on the lowest rung of the consumer chain, but it feels like a tiny pushback against the plastic avalanche.

British Columbia, where I live, has a beverage container recycling program. I know many other jurisdictions have it too, but ours seems to work particularly well. You buy a 2-liter pop bottle, and you pay a 25 cent deposit. If you bring the empty back to the local recycling depot, you get 20 cents back. The program has spawned a huge subculture of old folks, homeless people and drug addicts who now scour urban streets and rural byways daily for bottles. It is rare to see a discarded bottle laying around now, anywhere.

Why couldn’t we tweak our beverage recycling programs: if you bring the bottle back with the cap, you get the full 20 cents; without it, you only get 15 cents?

People talk about “the tyranny of many small decisions.” But when I think of the albatrosses of Midway, put at risk by collective thoughtlessness, and the naïve belief that we can throw something away, I think about the potential of making these kinds of insignificant corrections to our lifestyles. Maybe we can turn the tyranny of countless negative consumer decisions into a liberation of positive ones.