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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Not so Fantastic Plastic

Every now and then, there is a realisation that you are not as enlightened as you think. The lights go on and somehow the world looks entirely different from the way it used to.

I had one of those moments recently while searching for something to watch on TV. As unappealing as a serious doco initially seemed, TVNZ’s Oceans of Plastic had us riveted, and has changed the world for me. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. I used to think that I was reasonably green — we recycle and compost diligently, we sigh and roll our eyes at the thought of fracking, we buy clothes made from natural fibres and we embrace the idea of cycling as an alternative to fossil fuel consumption.  

Although worthy, how trite this all seems in the face of my new demon — plastic. No longer do those shiny colourful plastic things with which we surround ourselves seem cheerful and bright — in the space of a week these products, this packaging, these play things have turned into a garish and menacing threat.

I don’t mean to over-dramatise, but the facts are stark:
• There are vast areas of ocean where huge seas of plastic spread over many kilometres, and as the plastic matter breaks down, plastic particles enter the environment and the food chain.
• Plastic in the environment harms wildlife
• Plastic is sourced from petroleum, so the environment suffers in its production as well as in its disposal
• Plastic particles become part of the environment, as well as absorbing toxins from the environment, and break down themselves, releasing their own toxins
• As marine animals consume the plastic particles, they enter the food chain, ultimately affecting humans
• Plastic-sourced toxins have been shown to have frightening effects on human health

I grew up with milk in glass bottles, preserved fruit in glass jars, and when a boiled egg was considered convenience food. 

What do we really know about the long term effects of all this plastic packaging on human health?  Relatively recently, we have found out that BPA is carcinogenic and that children and pregnant woman probably shouldn’t drink water in PET bottles — what other unknown hazards will be discovered and what does this mean for our children?

So what to do? Every little bit counts, I reckon — Gizzy’s own Go Bamboo are putting it out there with toothbrushes, pegs and other consumable items made from beautiful biodegradable bamboo. Fewer plastic toothbrushes and pegs in the landfills and waterways has got to be a good thing — and that’s only the start for them, I’m sure.  The internet of course is rich with resources – is a great place to start. 
Why can’t we go back to bottled milk and more products in glass jars, paper bags, and the good old days where there was money in recycling glass? Is it really cheaper to ditch most of the plastic in the environment and send a bit over to India to be cleaned and recycled where labour is cheap, or are we just not putting a price on the real cost?

In our family, I can see, this is going to be a very slow and incremental process. On my first day on the “reduce plastic” mission, I managed to accumulate no less than 12 plastic bags, without even going to the supermarket.  We need to get into new habits and that will take time.  But I am going to take some advice from my favourite Dr Seuss book, The Lorax — “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”  

So I will plant my Truffula Tree, and treat it with care.  And if enough of us do, maybe the Lorax and all of his friends will come back.

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