Preserve Paradise: Reliving the Dream of Being Plastic Free

Do you remember last July? The mango trees were ripe, the flamboyant trees were blooming, and it was the Plastic-Free Island Summit! Dozens of environmental advocates and activists from island communities around the globe joined together to share their best practices for combatting our global  garbage problem. You might have caught one of the sessions at the Westin on recycling, or a presentation at St. John Brewers on community composting in Hawaii. One of the highlights was the “No Straw Campaign” video competition hosted by the Coral Bay Community Council and featured at movie night at the Susannaberg Ruins.

The air was ripe with the hope that someday soon St. John would be a model for sustainability. People seemed excited to carry around their metal straws and reusable cups. Businesses like Cruz Bay Landing had switched to biodegradable straws, High Tide, Joe’s Rum Hut and Skinny’s to name just a few had made the commitment to go plastic straw-free. We even had the VI government onboard, with the recent enactment of the plastic bag ban. Dolphin and Starfish groceries had made the switch to paper bags weeks ahead of the government’s deadline. People were learning to bring their reusable bags to the grocery store. It felt like St. John was in solidarity with other island communities, like the Hawaiian islands, and Bali, Indonesia and Kefalonia, Greece who had all decided to stop consuming plastic bags and plastic straws.

Then, we got hit by two Category 5 hurricanes and the debris of our lives became our encampments. Purging the unfixable, broken, destroyed, wet, moldy, useless stuff that was everywhere became an everyday task essential to a future of healthy living. We became efficient at throwing away. We followed instructions and put our ‘white’ appliances on the side of the road. We threw out the bad. The debris piled up, but away from us. Personally, the throwing away became cathartic. I wanted to throw out everything that was gross because of the storm, and along with the stuff, my sad memories. Throwing away also became a way to feel productive, a way to move ahead and start fresh.

The question is, when do we start holding ourselves accountable for our waste again? This is a question being asked by the St. John Community Foundation’s long-term environmental recovery group, which meets every Wednesday to ensure environmental sustainability goals are incorporated into our rebuilding process into the next decade. Led by Mary Vargo and Rachel McKinley, the group pulls together an eclectic band of concerned citizens from across the island to tackle the hard issues we face today. They would say the time is now, and always has been. Relentless in their optimism, the two ladies guide the groups to self-organize around important environmental concerns to identify solutions. Sometimes sitting in their meetings is overwhelming. Discussing solar energy solutions is exciting, but a quick turn in the conversation to our raw sewage problem changes the tone of the conversation too literally from light to dark… How will we fix these very large systematic problems that threaten the island’s delicate ecosystem?

As we move back into our routines and start to re-stock, I ask that you take stock. It is time to pick back up where we left off. Let’s start small with the things we know we can change. Skip the plastic straw, bring your own cup, and remember your grocery bag. We can do better starting today!

To learn more about the Long-Term Recovery Environmental Group, email

In partnership with Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, St. John Tradewinds has started a new monthly feature, “Preserve Paradise.” Content will focus on the FVINP’s mission to “protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources of Virgin Islands National Park and promote the responsible enjoyment of this unique national treasure while educating and inspiring adults and children to be stewards of the environment.”