Plastic Free Island Initiative Taking Root on St. John

L to R: Pam Longobardi, Dianna Cohen, Ken Haldin and Anne Ostrenko are helping to make St. John plastic free. [hr gap=”1″]

Most visitors to St. John return to the mainland with a bottle of rum, a new tee-shirt, and maybe a sunburn.

Not Pam Longobardi. When she boarded the ferry to go back to Atlanta on April 19, she carried a jumbo-sized duffle bag and a huge box packed full of plastic trash that had washed up on the East End of St. John.

An artist and the founder of the Drifters Project, Longobardi specializes in art pieces made up of found plastic objects that accumulate on beaches around the world. She was invited to St. John, along with artist Dianna Cohen of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, to launch Plastic-Free Islands-St. John.

Over the course of three jam-packed days, Cohen and Longobardi met with members of Island Green Living Association, the Coral Bay Community Council, The Gifft Hill School, the St. John Community Foundation, the Waste Management Authority, Get Trashed, the Friends of the VI National Park, and various stakeholders within the tourism industry.

They are joining together to implement one common goal: to reduce as much as possible the use of plastic, and more specifically to abolish the availability of single-use and disposable plastic objects on the island.

“There’s complete readiness — it just takes a catalyst,” said Longobardi, as she passed her refillable stainless steel cup to a waitress at the Dock who willingly rinsed it and filled it with pineapple juice.

“People are so open to us,” said Cohen. “This has happened everywhere we’ve gone.”

She gave out stainless steel straws to the bartenders and wait-staff she met on the island.

The two women have much in common. Both studied science in college but gravitated to the arts. They each became passionate advocates for the environment when they learned about the increasing amount of plastic adrift in the ocean. They each launched organizations to increase awareness of the harmful chemicals in plastics which move up the food chain and threaten human and animal life.

Cohen’s organization, Plastic Pollution Coalition, presents the facts: There are over five trillion pieces of plastic afloat in the ocean, weighing more than 269,000 tons.

“Current research indicates that if we don’t curb disposable plastic production, by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean,” according to the organization’s website.

The problem on St. John is plainly visible to anyone who walks windward-facing beaches. Bright plastic objects catch the eye among the more subtly-colored stones and corals

“Americans discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year,” according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and 33 percent of it is products that are used once and thrown away.

The five most common items found in international ocean cleanups are cigarette butts, food wrappers, beverage bottles, bottle caps, and drink stirrers and straws, according to the video “Trash Talk” on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. Eliminating items like these — which were used once and then thrown away — is now the focus of Plastic-Free Islands-St. John.

St. John is way behind the rest of the country when it comes to recycling. In 2013, the Coral Bay Community Council won a $90,000 Solid Waste Planning Management Grant from the Department of Agriculture and in 2015, CBCC produced a report which is posted on the organization’s website.

“According to the 2009 Waste Characterization Study, plastic is considered to be 16.1 percent of the waste stream going to the Bovoni Landfill,” according to CBCC’s website. “Only organics (32.7 percent) and paper (28.7 percent) were higher. There is no manufacturing or other use for recycled plastic in the Virgin Islands; thus for recycling, all plastics would have to be prepared and shipped off island.”

So far, although several community organizations have tried, no one has come up with a cost-effective plan for recycling plastic. The focus is now shifting to prevention.

The problem is that plastic is not bio-degradable. It breaks down into increasingly smaller particles that can be ingested by the tiniest creatures in the sea, which are then consumed by fish, mammals and birds.

The toxic effects of plastics are still unknown, but the research is pretty scary, explained Cohen.

“The chemicals used are linked to obesity, diabetes, lower sexual function, sterility and infertility, breast cancer, brain cancer, prostate cancer, early menses, and feminization among boys,” she said.

Cohen, who started using plastic bags to create two and three-dimensional art pieces 20 years ago, explained how she first became aware of the problem in her Ted Talk entitled “Tough Truths about Plastic Pollution.”

“After about eight years, some of my pieces started to fissure and break into smaller little bits of plastic,” she said. “I thought, ‘Great! It’s ephemeral, just like us. Upon educating myself further, I realized it was a bad thing because it’s always still plastic, and a lot of it is in the marine environment.”

Cohen learned about how ocean and wind currents had swirled plastic debris into what is known as “the gyre” or the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” She launched a plan to travel to the gyre with trawlers and equipment to collect the trash and convert it into bricks that could be used in undeveloped countries. But upon learning more, she changed her goal.

“I realized that cleaning it up would be a very small drop in the bucket relative to how much was being generated every day,” said Cohen. “We need to cut the spigot of single use and disposable plastics which are entering the marine environment every day on a global scale.”

Longobardi’s awareness of the problem was pricked when she spent time in Hawaii in 2006. Beachcombing for coconuts, driftwood and shells to use in her artwork, she found instead mounds of plastic debris.

“I felt like I was witnessing a crime scene. I felt like I was getting a message from the sea,” she said.

Longobardi began to use the plastic she collected from around the world in her artwork. One of her more poignant pieces is a “chain” of 490 cigarette lighters removed from albatross nests on Midway Island. The mother birds had brought the brightly-colored lighters back to their nests, possibly to feed to their chicks.

“Plastic objects are the cultural archeology of our times,” according to her website “These objects I see as a portrait of global late-capitalist consumer society, mirroring our desires, wishes, hubris and ingenuity. These are objects with unintended consequences that become transformed as they leave the quotidian world and collide with nature to be transformed, transported and regurgitated out of the shifting oceans….The plastic elements initially seem attractive and innocuous, like toys…. At first, the plastic seems innocent and fun, but it is not. It is dangerous.”

Longobardi, who teaches at Georgia State University, collaborated with the school, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and the Center for Disease Control to present a symposium in Atlanta in March 2015 entitled “The Plastic Gyre.” In addition to bringing together scientists, artists and activists, the event included an exhibition at the CDC’s museum of artwork to highlight the immensity of the plastic pollution problem.

It was at this event that Ken Haldin and Anne Ostrenko, part-time residents of St. John, met Longobardi and Cohen. The goal of Plastic-Free Islands is to create a model that is “exportable and customizable,” according to Haldin, and they immediately thought about what could be done on St. John.

Haldin had become involved with the Island Green Living Association in 2013 and helped identify a company in Atlanta to purchase the aluminum cans collected by community organizations for recycling.

When Cohen and Longobardi found an opening in their schedules to visit the island, Haldin approached Doug White, one of IGLA’s founders, whose response was, “How can we help?”

Together they put together a busy 72-hour agenda to meet the island’s stakeholders in the recycling movement.

They spoke with Erin Lieb and Tonia Lovejoy who started Get Trashed, a group of volunteers who pick up trash around St. John every month. They met with students at the Gifft Hill School, and with the crews of Kekoa and Cloud 9 Sailing Adventures which use metal cups and glass bottles instead of plastic bottles and cups.

“It’s not that we’re anti-plastic,” said Haldin, who does public affairs work with corporate and non-profit clients. “Plastic has great value. We’re against ‘fugitive plastic’ — the straw that got away.’”

He and Ostrenko, a writer and video producer, have been visiting St. John for 27 years and own a condo at Lavender Hill and land in Coral Bay. They have the perfect skill set to bring together a working group that can focus on the enormous task ahead of them.

The first task at hand is eliminating the use of plastic straws that wash back up on the beaches. Paper straws are now available, thanks to an increase in demand.

“It’s about packaging, not products,” said Haldin. “We don’t want to disrupt the local merchants. Everyone we’ve met has said, ‘Keep going; let’s stay in touch.’”

For more information, email Haldin at