Dr. Plastic Picker: How I decided to go All In on Climate Solutions

By Vi Thuy Nguyen, MD, FAAP

Plogging is jogging while picking trash. Plalking is walking while litter-picking. Plurfing is gathering plastic while surfing. #fillabag is when you find a bag and fill it with trash. There is an entire lexicon and culture within the Instagram trash collecting world. You can clean the environment while jogging, paddle-boarding or surfing. You can make the trash you find into art and be an artivist. You can spend hours picking up litter or just 2 minutes like #2minbeachcleanup. You can even be an awesome dog like BobThePlog Dog. The only rule is that you have to show the litter you pick. I am Dr. Plastic Picker, this community’s unofficial litter-picking pediatrician. I am Harvard-trained and Assistant Chief of Pediatrics at Kaiser San Diego. I am Co-Chair of AAP San Diego Climate Change and Health Committee which is currently the largest chapter committee in the country. But I’d rather be known as Dr. Plastic Picker.

My journey to activism started with physician burnout. I hit a wall a year ago. I simply broke. This was during the same time as the youth climate strikes. I decided to head to the beach to get exercise, pick up trash and symbolically help the youth climate activists. Then something happened during those walks. Exercise and looking at the debris of our modern existence in a semi-meditative state in the mornings, I started feeling better. Performing good deeds is healing. Each piece of trash I’ve picked has helped me put the pieces of my life back together. I’ve been doing almost daily walks for a year. I’m almost to bag #350! I am an outpatient pediatrician well regarded in my organization. But I don’t get that sense of benevolence at work because I get paid. When I pick up plastic, it’s voluntary. It’s empowering. It’s addictive. It’s my super-power.

This sense of agency I experienced through litter-picking and realizing the earth needed help led me to create my super-hero avatar. Dr. Plastic Picker is a personal “plastic-picking blog,” an Instagram account and a Facebook page. Then at last year’s AAP New Orleans Conference I attended a lecture on climate change. This led me to Lori Byron, our leader of the AAP National Climate Change and Health Committee.

Lori, my environmental mentor, asked me to write about how I have social media space as a climate activist. I started first as a litter-picker on Instagram and blogging for fun. My blog is non-monetized. I write about my life. I blog daily and oddly have a large amount of internet and Instagram traffic. In fact, I’ve been offered money for my blog. I also blog about physician personal finance. But I’m financially independent so declined. In fact, I coined a new term Financial Independence to Save the Earth (FISE), which I’m trying to make a thing -you know add to the growing litter-picking lexicon! I’m popular because I write about weird things like living with my mother-in-law, Star Trek (Vulcans are Vegan) and my haphazard adventures in imperfect vegan cooking and raising our two kids. Our kids are my best advertisement for living a moral and environmentally conscientious life.

When I decided to go all in to save the earth, I was serious. I bring everything to my environmental work. I bring managerial skills, as I actually have a full time job helping manage 90 pediatricians. I bring experience as a premedical advisor. I bring my writing, public speaking and a happy personality. But most importantly I brought along my community. The largest AAP Climate Change and Health Committee in the country are my friends. San Diego Pediatricians for Clean Air who helped push the hiring of Environmental Justice Staff at the San Diego Air Pollution Control Board are the same group. We have four premedical interns who volunteer and spear-head amazing climate change and health projects.  I advise them for free as I like them and they are helping me help the earth.

When I think of all that we have accomplished in such a short time it has been heart-warming. Dr. Plastic Picker is just me. I’m your local litter-picking pediatrician. I’m no longer burned out. Nature healed me.  It’s my turn to help. I care about everyone. I really care about the ocean plastic pollution as the #oceansareourlungs. Sometimes adults don’t understand.  I’ve been mocked online and in person, but the kids – they totally get me. Their eyes light up when I show them my trash art. They join me at beach cleanings with our special dinosaur metal grabbers. They describe to me how they are saving our earth. I was really scared about a year ago. I was scared about my health and scared for the earth. But at some point I decided to not be scared anymore and to take care of myself, my community and the planet. Someone once said the best antidote to despair is action. And Dr. Plastic Picker decided to take action! I decided to pick up a piece of trash.  Then I decided to go all in to fight climate change. My other power is I carry a metal trash grabber. If anyone threatens or tries to mock us – remember I can wield that grabber! LOL Signing off your local litter picking pediatrician.

Vi Thuy Nguyen, MD, FAAP, is Assistant Chief of Pediatrics at Kaiser San Diego. She is co-chair of AAP California Chapter Three’s Committee on Climate Change and Health, and Co-Founder of San Diego Pediatricians for Clean Air.  She also blogs as Dr. Plastic Picker her semi-anonymous eco-avatar at https://www.drplasticpicker.com or you can follow her on Instagram at @drplasticpicker

This blog is part of a series from pediatricians we will feature throughout October, Children’s Health Month. It was originally posted on the AAP Voices blog.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health.  Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.

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