We all understand that plastic waste is bad for the environment, but I never fully comprehended the severity of its effects until a natural disaster washed it up right in front of my face

I was living on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, where hurricane season is in full force. My home was on a pristine beach on Isla Mujeres, where the waves caress the shores all day every day, the sandy beach beckons barefoot strolls, and vistas of the open ocean stretch as far as the eye can see.

After I had endured a tropical storm and hurricane Zeta on the Yucatan Peninsula earlier in the month, news of another oncoming hurricane wasn’t an alarming shock to me. The locals assured me that the risk wasn’t severe and I wouldn’t have to evacuate the island, so I prepared for the usual drill: stock up on snacks in case the power went out, charge my devices and download shows and podcasts, and stay inside and undercover once the storm hit.

As the afternoon set in, the brooding clouds loomed closer to the shore, the waves started to crash farther up the beach, the wind started to pick up, and eventually, the gusts became unbearable, sweeping sand up to pelt at my legs and in my eyes and making it impossible to stay outside. The storm was upon us and I hunkered down inside for the night, as the electricity flickered off and the wind continued to roar into the morning.

windKellie PaxianMorning came, and I woke up to the power blinking back on—the air conditioning resumed its relieving hum, the lights blinded my barely-open eyes. The wind had calmed down and I didn’t hear the palm trees thrashing against the building anymore. I got up and went outside to assess the damage.

The calm after the storm wasn’t too severe—there was debris washed up on the beach, palm fronds scattered across the property, and a couple of larger branches had fallen, but no major damage from what I could see.

Then I walked out to the shoreline.

The edges of where the waves had reached were now a dumpster zone. Mounds and mounds of trash were strewn across the beach, interspersed with sargassum, a seaweed that floats in the sea and often intrudes the shores of the Caribbean in the mornings. I couldn’t believe my eyes—I’ve seen garbage scattered all over our earth, I’ve seen trash washed up on beaches on six continents or floating in the ocean while I’m scuba diving or boating, I’ve seen open-air landfills. But this was on a whole new level, and it was a major wake-up call that I wish everyone could witness.

This is the damage we’re doing to our planet, and the natural disaster put it all under a microscope for me that morning.

I was shocked at the mass amount that had washed up onto that one small beach from that one storm, and it is only a small indication of how much trash is actually floating around in our oceans. It is estimated that 150 million metric tonnes of plastic trash have accumulated in the sea, and that number is expected to reach 600 million metric tonnes by 2040.

Do these numbers seem incomprehensible to you? Same. Staggering, yes, but hard to fathom. Seeing just a fraction of that trash on the beach in Isla Mujeres gave me a crystal clear visual representation of those numbers.

There were bottles, bags, shoes (someone is missing their Gucci sandal), a phone, tires, ropes and countless shards of tiny plastic pieces. And if it weren’t for that hurricane, it would have all still been floating in the sea and threatening the lives of our beautiful marine creatures like turtles, dolphins, rays, and fish.

sea turtleKellie PaxianAlong with some fellow planet-loving humans, I jumped into my first beach clean-up and although I thought it would be a rewarding day of doing a good deed, the clean-up was actually more discouraging than fulfilling.

After over an hour of cleaning up the beach, we were able to round up a dozen bags of garbage, but it seemed to be an impossible task to gather up all the tiny pieces. That was the most devastating part, as these are the pieces that the turtles and fish mistake for tiny pieces of food, choke on, and die. They will think a plastic bag is a jellyfish or a fishing net is seaweed, causing their intestines to block or their stomach to feel full, resulting in them dying on starvation from eating real food. They also get tangled in the material, leading to the untimely deaths of these already endangered creatures.

clean up crewKellie PaxianVisuals like the one I saw make it impossible not to think twice about garbage again. Every piece of trash on the ground or open-air landfills can get washed into the ocean. When you stomp out a cigarette butt on the ground (first of all, don’t smoke, it’s bad for your health), it can end up as fish food. Any type of plastic—bottles, bags, products—degrades and ends up as microplastics in the sea for animals to choke on. This is why reusable items in place of single-use plastics are so, so important, as is prioritizing what type of products we are buying.

It shouldn’t take a hurricane for anyone, including myself, to wake up to this issue. But with every lesson we learn about protecting our planet, hopefully, we can save a turtle or a Nemo. Start now, because we don’t have time to waste.