Last Friday morning, Jan. 20, I decided to make a sweep of Beach Road and the Lagoon Pond Bridge in search of nip bottles. I planned my walk to coincide with the low tide point, 11:29. For me low tide is the most interesting time to walk alongside the shore and see the exposed beach and the gulls wheeling overhead, each one with a good catch in its beak of breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The previous evening I had attended a screening at the film center of The Plastic Ocean, which brings a powerful message of the degradation of our oceans by discarded plastics and the terrible harm this plague wreaks on marine life — ultimately, on all life on this blue and green planet. In the question-and-answer period following the film came the inevitable question: “What can we as individuals do?” The inevitable answer: “Do what you as an individual can to reduce your environmental footprint. This is the best way to make a difference. The most important thing is individual behavioral changes.” I had heard this question and exactly this answer at a presentation by Phil Duffy, the leader of the Woods Hole Research Center, some months before.

To me this response is dispiriting. I don’t think my washing and reusing ziploc bags — also done by Tanya Streeter, one of the adventurer-presenters in the film — or saving up the kitchen peelings in the freezer until I can get them to someone’s compost pile are actually going to make much of a difference. It is like a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear. Such actions reflect my own ethic, but they do not affect a public ethic. I think the environmentally concerned citizenry is asking for more than this.

My answer to that inevitable question would be: Let our public officials, our civic organizations, our NGOs know that we want them to show leadership in creating the administrative and concrete infrastructure that supports individuals in their “behavioral changes” and makes them visible and measurable through aggregation.

We have just witnessed the Vineyard Conservation Society’s successful initiative to ban single-use plastic grocery bags in five towns on the Vineyard (catching up with, among others, France, Ireland, and Rwanda). What comes next? One attendee raised the issue of nip bottles. His view was that is the most pressing litter and pollution problem, and dealing with it should be the target of organized action. The increasing ubiquity of these little bottles on town streets here and in Falmouth had certainly caught my attention. The young man who raised the issue showed a photo of a large pile of little nip bottles collected during one sweep of East Chop.

Could the next clear initiative against plastic pollution be some kind of action on little nip bottles, as the film attendee suggested? Hence, the agenda of my walk, to see how many little nips I would find between Five Corners and the bridge.

For collecting I took with me the last one of my stash of plastic grocery bags. On the little beach after the Shell station I found a single little nip, a couple of plastic bottles, and some plastic grocery bags, and other random debris such as lengths of synthetic rope. Also, a dead bird. If I slit it open would its gullet reveal the literally gut-wrenching handsful of plastic shards that a scientist in the film had found crammed in the stomach cavities of dead birds she examined?

Back on the roadside, before I found a little nip, I found all sorts of other trash---should I pick that up, too? I spotted a brand-new green Shur-Line reusable grocery bag blowing against the seawall, so I used that to collect the plastic bottles and other items. On a post at the boat landing I placed a perfectly good yellow Falmouth Lumber #700 hard hat, retrieved from the beach plum thicket.

On both sides of Beach Road, the town landing, and the Eastville Beach and parking areas, I found 42 little nips, not including six that were too far inside the rosa rugosa line for me to reach. But I found even more plastic bottles, glass bottles (including fifths and many returnables), drink cans, disintegrating chunks of Styrofoam packaging, coffee cups with plastic tops, and plastic bags, not to mention other debris that I wasn’t prepared to collect. I emptied the Shur-Line bag three times in the trash receptacle at the new park at the bridge. It was the only trash receptacle I saw between Five Corners and the bridge.

My nip-collecting trek led me to some ideas for concrete proposals. One reason the nip bottles feel like an appropriate target for action is because they are actually designed to be thrown away after one use, and they build on the bottle bill idea. I went online to see what I could see. Turns out that local liquor licensing boards (i.e., the selectmen) have the power to prohibit sales of little nips ( As for dealing with the behavioral problem of throwing little nips out the car window, one first has to deal with the behavioral problem of people drinking while driving. Yet the liquor debate in Tisbury clearly shows that liquor is a profit point for everyone who deals in it. Dead end there.

Other towns, such as Wareham, characterize the little nip problem as part of a bigger litter problem. The “Don’t be a litter bug” campaigns of our youth seem almost quaint now, but litter is just the old-fashioned term for plastic pollution that has become an ocean catastrophe. Sure, the scope of the problem here is tiny compared to the horrors shown in The Plastic Ocean, but it is not unrelated. Tisbury Marketplace is picked up and clean, but between there and Winds Up the business property fronts are made unsightly by trash on the ground and festooning the plantings, plus the bottles, etc., and this is next to the harbor and the Lagoon. All Island roadsides feature various degrees of litter.

Having “done” plastic bags, can we now focus our energy on this very doable aim of eliminating roadside and street trash in Tisbury and making it easy for the public to accomplish this?

Doing so would remove the trash from nature, would make the town more attractive, especially to walkers, could generate meaningful data, and would contribute to building a stronger visible environmental ethic in this town. My starting ideas for concrete action are the following:

• Place trash receptacles at a few points along Beach Road and at the town landings and all beaches.

• Place containers for bottle recycling, with pictures of acceptable items, next to trash receptacles.

• Establish a bottle return site in the center of town that accepts all bottles, regardless of source. It could provide chits that benefit the Island Boys and Girls Club.

• Have the town beautification committee establish an annual booby prize for the business property with the most litter on it.

• Establish a program where youth groups are responsible for keeping two-mile stretches of roadsides litter-free. This litter would be separated and measured.

• Link cleanup efforts to measurement and record keeping that generate useful data. A hopeful prediction: a record of a decrease of the volume of litter year by year.

Just before I left the house to catch the tide, I had recalled that it was Inauguration Day. The 45th president would be sworn in at noon. I took off my coat, turned on my laptop, and watched the proceedings for about 20 minutes. Later, as I walked along the Eastville side of the Lagoon Pond channel with my bags of trash, I noticed that the slack tide had ended and the water was starting, ever so slightly, to stream the other way. Small wavelets of the obediently returning water lapped the shore, boosted by the gentle wake of a departing ferry. The usual small flock of winter ducks bobbed in the channel. I thought of JFK’s famous quote — mentioned also during the Inaugural ceremony — but with this difference: “Ask what you can do for your environment.” It is so easy: Anything you do for the environment, you do for yourself. Can we craft programs that make it easier for everyone to do the right thing?

Katherine Scott lives in Vineyard Haven.