By afternoon and by appointment, Vi Nguyen., MD, is assistant chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente and a Girl Scout co-leader to her daughter’s troop.
But by early mornings and blog posts, she becomes Dr. Plastic Picker.
If that sounds like the name of a superhero, it’s because she is — in her own, environmentally-conscientious way.
Nguyen told PB Monthly that in September she launched drplasticpicker.com to declare her decision to take the time and finances she’d been putting into personal wellness services (like Weight Watchers and gym classes), and invest them in the Earth.
Drplasticpicker.com is where Nguyen documents all the plastic, trash, toys, clothing and beach items she finds while on her morning clean-up strolls.
About three times during the work week, Nguyen rises with (or before) the sun, and walks along the Pacific Beach coast for a half hour from Crystal Pier to Tourmaline Street, looking for things to throw away, clean, recycle or donate — often juggling work calls at the same time. On weekends, she’ll spend up to an hour each day picking up trash, sometimes traversing as far as La Jolla.
Ironically, though she grew up in San Diego County and returned after graduating from Harvard Medical School, Nguyen said she was never much of a “beach person” prior to her shore-cleaning strolls.
She also uses her blog to keep track of the environmental donations she makes — her first was $25 to the World Wildlife Fund, an organization chosen by her children.
In November, she donated $300 to Rainforest Trust, a group dedicated to purchasing and protecting tropical lands to conserve threatened species.
Since shifting her focus to environmental work, Nguyen said she feels more focused, less stressed with work, sleeps better, and is more time-efficient in her daily tasks.
Her passions as a pediatrician are reflected in her urge to take care of the planet, its inhabitants and its future. She sees the same group of 2,000 patients she’s been seeing for the past 10 years, and is committed to their well-being.
“Just like with my patients,” she explained, “I tell them I’m here for them — and same thing with the beach. I’m here. I’m the neighbor.”
Her drive to help the planet is contagious, and has spread to her co-workers, who decided they also wanted to participate with their own plastic-picking endeavors.
So Nguyen organized an office trip to clean up waste along the beach, which is now a monthly affair. Her influence led one of her co-workers and his family to decide to participate in environmental services to mark their birthdays, instead of throwing parties for themselves.
“(The office) used to give out gift bags, gift cards, stuff like that,” Nguyen explained. “And then we said, ‘Let’s all pull money together and buy something for the clinic, for our lunchroom, because if we eat together in the lunchroom, we won’t go out and create more plastic!’ ”
Nguyen said she hopes her blog will impact readers to simply do what they can to help the environment, by picking up their own trash and cleaning up at least three pieces of trash they find on a daily basis — a habit her father has adopted since Nguyen has started her blog.
Dr. Plastic Picker is not a monetized blog, and even when companies send her products (like the “Squeasy Snacker” re-usable silicon food pouch), she gives them away to fellow pediatricians. Her blog is simply intended to raise environmental awareness, she insisted, as well as keep her accountable for her own plastic use.
Your money where your mouth is
One of the ways Dr. Plastic Picker maintains accountability is with a monthly blog series “Secondary Environmental Net Positives,” in which she outlines 15 ways she made environmentally beneficial changes that month.
In October, her list included using her managerial power to turn an in-person meeting, which would have required five attendees to drive about 100 miles, into a virtual meeting; making the switch to garbage bags made with 65 percent post-consumer recycled plastic content; and signing up to have bills paid through autopay.
In an attempt to reduce carbon output from flights and address more local medical concerns, she has even canceled trips to exotic locations for medical outreach, and turned down work propositions to travel to places such as Fiji.
Standing up for her beliefs
As a pediatrician and a mother, Nguyen’s concerns for the environment extend to the effects harmful products can have on people. After addressing a public web post to a California vaping company regarding her concern that the company was marketing to a young audience and questioning if the vaping pens’ material were environmentally-friendly, she received a less-than-understanding reply, causing her to doubt whether continuing her blog was worth it.
But that same day, the American Academy of Pediatrics released the article “JUULing: What Pediatricians and Families Need to Know,” which confirmed for Nguyen that she was on the right path.
“A lot of the things about plastic picking started with wellness,” she said, “but now it’s really that, at the end of the day, what is my legacy? I just want to make sure the world is a little bit better for kids, after I pass away.”
And she said, she’s not the only one with a weekly dedication to clean the beach.
“I am just one of many,” she pointed out, adding she sees a few “regulars” along her strolls, also picking up trash. “There’s other quiet people doing it. It’s just part of what they do.
“I think people are a little bit different when they’re on the beach for some reason. When their feet hit the sand, they’re different. It’s like we’re all part of nature now.”