In 1956, as a young schoolboy, I hung out to dry on the clothesline, 3 plastic bags that had been used that day for wrapping lunches for my sisters and myself. They were far better than the paper bags used earlier. A rubber band held the plastic bags together – no zip locks or seal easy’s – keeping the sandwiches within, soft and fresh. The bags were washed and reused many times.
My toys were all wooden or metal. My mechano set, (Lego is the new substitute), was all metal with nuts and bolts as the fasteners. Food packaging was in glass, paper or cardboard. Regular milk and bread deliveries were to our gate. Milk was poured, by the milkman, into a metal “billy” with a tight-fitting lid. The billy was washed and re-used time and again for, probably, 10 years. The milk was full cream, unpasteurised and tasty – no choices of lactose-free, low fat, calcium-enriched; just good old-fashioned milk. Over the period of the use of the billy, our family would have purchased and disposed of, around 1,300 plastic bottles, had they been available then.
But in a mere 60 years, all hell has broken loose on our planet. We are drowning in plastic – more so in third world countries where the infrastructure is not in place to deal with waste. But the oceans too are awash with the stuff. Henderson Island in the eastern South Pacific and a part of the Pitcairn Group is covered by 18 tonnes of plastic, washed up on its tiny beaches. The island is a World Heritage listed site, uninhabited and attracting a constant bombardment of plastic, much of which is being covered with sand from wave action, with fresh spoilage arriving on top daily.
An estimated 10% to 12% of the global population relies on fishing and aquaculture for their livelihood. Demand for seafood is increasing at a time when more and more plastic is entering the oceans. At the base of the food-chain are phytoplankton whose energy is from photosynthesis, just like plants. Zooplankton feed on phytoplankton but also consume microplastics – the latter being a by-product of larger plastic waste broken down under UV exposure. Zooplankton are eaten by larger zooplankton, fish and larger fish, and on down the chain. The greatest risk to humans is from eating shellfish and small fish which are eaten whole – microplastics and all! Fish, mammals and seabirds are dying in agony with stomachs full of all manner of plastic bits and pieces. Dolphins, turtles and whales are trapped in nets cast adrift from fishing vessels or caught up in ropes and lines that do not degrade. Some beaches are knee-deep in plastic waste. Our land- fills will remain clogged with non-degradable cast-offs for centuries. What sort of a world have we made for our children and their children? The film “Plastic Ocean” is a must-see.
We are all to blame. We embrace the madness – buying single corn cobs wrapped in plastic, tomatoes, bags of fruit, in fact almost anything we buy will have a plastic content. Our children’s toys are all plastic and often broken and discarded within a very short time after purchase. The current furore over plastic supermarket bags is to be applauded – but it is only a very small part of the problem. Manufacturers, retailers; in fact, any businesses producing and selling products are only concerned with image, presentation, consumer appeal, growing turnover and profit. In most instances, shiny plastic packaging is seen as adding to the product attraction. The cycle needs to be broken so that producers look for alternatives.
I am aware of one excellent example of a company making a difference. Ethique in Christchurch, New Zealand, make an excellent range of solid shampoo and beauty bars all packaged in biodegradable wrappers that can be added to the compost bin. So far, in their short history, they claim to have prevented more than 150,000 plastic bottles from being made and disposed of.
My grandchildren seem to be well informed on the growing plastic waste problems. I applaud the efforts the education system is making to enlighten students on this, and global warming. They will be living in this world beset with many serious issues a great deal longer than I will now. I am confident that their generation will seriously address and make the necessary changes; and I can only hope it will not be too late.
There are some future events that will make the task for the next generation even more difficult. A growing number of countries and some car manufacturers are setting dates for an end to the use and production of petrol and diesel vehicles. Replacements are expected to be electric transportation in its various forms of pure electric or hybrid. The decline in oil use will be dramatic. So what will happen to all the oil still undersea, in the deserts, shale extracted by fracking, oil sands and arctic oil? It is still debatable whether we have reached Peak Oil (maximum production possible). Some experts predict there is no imminent peak, despite daily world production of around 96M barrels of oil and liquid fuel. The petrochemical industry has a high degree of flexibility in the feedstock it consumes. Natural gas consumption is rising rapidly and hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL) are a by-product. The olefins in HGL contain ethylene and butylene which can be used as a direct input into plastics manufacturing so it may follow that the reduced oil useage for transport in developed countries will result in increased production of input chemicals for plastic. This may mean even cheaper plastic raw materials and lead to a further incentive for widespread plastic use.
These dangers highlight the need for drastic action. Capitalist societies dominate the world today and I include China who, despite state control, are able to manufacture, package and export vast quantities of goods at prices few can compete with. Plastics are diverse and their use in all its forms, will continue unchecked until legislation is introduced to limit, restrict or outlaw its non-recyclable cousins. Is this, though, enough? How do we stop a discarded soft drink bottle from washing down the drain during a downpour and out to sea? Can we ever outlaw plastic production?
That skinny little schoolboy pegging out the sandwich bags on the clothesline 62 years ago had no idea, at that time, what was in store in the years ahead.
My next blog will address some myths about electric cars.