Plastic Waste: We are the Problem

Plastic waste is not only our problem. We are the problem.

We are made of the same physical elements as dolphins, elephants and eagles and are part of the web of life we call nature. All is nature. The complexity we have created, our economies, our social order are all within nature. It cannot be otherwise. We share our DNA with all other species. Life on Earth started in the oceans and that is where our ancestral common parents came from, millions of years ago. Other life forms are our distant cousins. The natural world is alive and full of life. It is appropriately described as the ‘web’ of life as it is interconnected and interdependent, just like a spider’s web. All life on earth is biological and biological life interacts intimately. Our bodies and senses absorb the environment. Whatever is around us is also in us, for better or for worse.

Our bodies have been absorbing pollution by breathing and eating – test for it and you will find it. For example, I read that Bisphenol-A (BPA) is known to mimic the female hormone oestrogen. It has been used since the 1960s to make certain plastics and resins used in containers that store food or beverages. Some research has shown that BPA can seep into food and beverages. Exposure to BPA is a concern because of possible health effects. It seems that over 80% of us may have BPA in our blood from plastic contamination – this has been known for decades and yet we live in ignorance.

Sample of plastic waste washing up on our beaches

Macro-plastic and Micro-plastic collected from the sea around Malta

The web of life that we are part of has created and continues to provide us with water, food and air that are essential for our survival. We are born, live and die in nature. We are creatures of Earth and there is no other place for us to live but on Earth and in nature. A failure to understand this simple existential fact has led us to degrade the natural ecosystem to the point of collapse.

Forever increasing economic growth for our species cannot be an end in itself. Scientist, Professor Guy McPherson said “If you really think that the environment is less important than the economy, try holding your breath while you count your money”.

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle was visibly angry when she addressed the assembled political elite at the Our Oceans conference in Malta “We are the beneficiaries of the actions of those many forms of life that have shaped Earth into a place that is hospitable for us. In all of the universe there are plenty of places where water exists and rocks exist but nowhere is there a place that is so friendly and hospitable with a naturally inbuilt life support system. If you like to breath, you will listen up and thank all those creatures who over the years have shaped the Earth into a place that we think of as home.”

The serious danger of a conference, such as the Our Ocean one, is that it perpetuates the belief that a top-down solution is workable in spite of the fact that it has never worked and continues not to.

We think that solutions must cost millions and must be technological. We expect others to make the hard choices. We think we can carry on mindlessly buying plastic and producing waste as we have always done, while somebody else acts to protect us against the effect of climate change, gets the mercury and plastic toxins out of the fish, filters the nitrates and heavy metals out of the water, uses more natural space to create landfills for more millions of tons of our plastic waste. There is no way for the world’s proper natural functioning to be restored from ‘life taking’ to ‘life giving’ unless we all change our mindset and lifestyles. It has to be a bottom-up solution.

We at least now have some context that is based on these two facts. We are inextricably part of nature and we are the problem. We can become the solution by changing. Change can happen because change can be a choice. Being mindful of what we are and of the connection we have with all other life forms and our home, the Earth, should make us realise that we have to stop polluting our only home. You may think that this is not your problem. If you like to live – it actually is.

Waiting for that law to be passed or for that person in power to take the right decision could be a way to go. Research has however shown that that is not how change happens – that is top-down thinking. The reality is that each one of us takes tens of decisions daily on all sorts of matters and that is where change happens – that is bottom-up thinking. Sometimes politicians are compelled to make choices by public demand – that is still a bottom-up process.

Malta is a very small overpopulated and polluted country, with an economy based on exploiting whatever comes to hand with no concern for consequences. Plastic waste is in every street, every stretch of soil, all along our coastline and all over our countryside. The level of economic activity can only be described as frantic. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, 1600 people per square kilometre. This hectic state of affairs brings problems like plastic pollution into sharp focus.

Sample of plastic waste from our beaches: breaking up to micro size

Sample of plastic waste from Maltese beaches: breaking up to micro size

The only thing for Malta to do with a toxic material, such as short-life plastic products, is not to import them in the first place. Once imported, plastic spreads like a virus. Worldwide 80% of plastic waste ends up in landfills and the environment. There it multiplies by breaking down into smaller pieces, up to sizes that are measured in microns (1000 microns = 1 mm). All the plastic ever manufactured still exists somewhere on Earth, most of it too small to see. It enters the food chain via packaging, water, agricultural produce and other species we consume, and ends up inside our bodies. The plastic particles will outlive the life forms that carry them as plastic waste takes hundreds of years to degrade. The physical body of the life form, human or other, will decompose at a much faster rate than the plastic. Plastic particles move around from being to being in the web of life, over many of our generations leaving a trail of death, until it finally completely degrades.

You have purchasing power. Use it. Refuse single use plastic packaging, bags and bottles.  Recycle all your plastic waste. When you go to the beach or countryside pick up the plastic around you and put it out for recycling at home; Organise plastic cleanups; if you are a director of a water-bottling or beverages company, put changing to glass on the agenda of the next board meeting; if you are a decision maker within government, have the courage to be part of the solution; if you are an importer, think biodegradable, think compostable; See how you can reduce the single use plastic in your life, daily, one step at a time. Just do it.

Article published in the Sunday Times of Malta, 5th November 2017

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