Plastic—a problem so grave, so omnipresent … for a while, I sat staring at the blank document, unable to decide where and how to begin, incapacitated by the images of garbage-clogged water bodies, toxin-exposed garbage collectors, monstrous facilities, choking birds, and turtles with straws stuck in their nostrils. These, among many other atrocities, haunt me still and will probably continue to do so for long.
Are these images any less violent than those of a child’s severed body or the bullet-ridden victims of the many perpetual wars? Probably we can’t really ascertain, but they do invoke similar feelings of sheer horror, hopelessness, and guilt.
It is a common belief that life without plastics—being extremely durable and cheap—is almost impossible. Yet, once we are done using a plastic product and decide to throw it away, its durability becomes our worst nightmare, even if it doesn’t torment us immediately.
Obsessed with profiting from lower material costs, we are losing manifolds in paying the environmental price: often with our lives and those of many others. Several experts of the plastic crisis note that nearly 90% of all plastics ever produced is still present on earth in some form or the other, choking marine beings, intoxicating our lands, contaminating our waters, and in effect, killing each one of us, both directly and indirectly.
A common argument in plastic’s favour is that this post-World War II invention has made prosthetic limbs possible, or for that matter, has assured us lighter vehicles and space shuttles which apparently consume less fuel. These are only two of the many boons of plastic, no doubt. Yet, it’s also true that plastic has made most things in our lives “disposable”. According to some estimates, nearly 40% of all plastic products are “single-
Is the problem only in the outcome?
Yes, and no. In The Story of Plastic (2019)—Deia Schlosberg’s documentary for the Story of Stuff project—it has been highlighted that the problems with plastics don't exactly begin after the products have become “wastes”. The demon preys at all stages and levels of this petrochemical’s lifecycle—from extraction, through production and sale, to the so-called recycling facilities and deep-ocean gyres, and finally, into our bodies.
Enormous quantities of microplastics—tiny, microscopic bits of plastic; by far, its most dangerous form—have even found their way into the Arctic snow. How did they reach there? By air. Of course, there is no reason to rest assured that we are not breathing microplastics, day in and day out. Truth be told, we are, and also drinking them.
From the documentary, it could also be understood that the giant corporations—the likes of Coca Cola, Unilever, and Nestle, to name a few—have often tried to shift the blame to the consumers and local authorities. Their intention is to establish plastic pollution as a “waste issue”, putting the onus on those who generate and manage this waste. To an extent, we are surely a part of the problem, but then again, it cannot be stressed enough that the destructive, violent, horrific, and unjust story of plastic begins at the moment someone thinks of producing plastic or plastic-based products, mostly to accrue greater profits.
Our act of disposing of food packets, wrappers, sachets, and whatnots into the trash cans is only the climax at best.
The beginnings of an end
Historically speaking, the genesis of the plastic problem lies somewhere in the post-war and post-depression industrialization drives of the West. Around the 1950s, not only was plastic invented, but highly-funded and extensive advertising campaigns asked people, especially in America, to “buy more”.
Popular publications such as the LIFE magazine motivated people to adopt Throwaway Living (1955), sparking a chain reaction which has now culminated in hill-like garbage piles in third-world nations, mostly filled with plastic waste.
Today, the once-pristine beaches of Easter Island continuously receive waves of garbage from around the world. In The Plastic Problem (2019) by the PBS NewsHour, Pedro Edmunds Paoa—the Mayor of Easter Island’s only town, Hanga Roa—speaks movingly of the bizarre problem that they have been facing since the past few years. “The world is trashing the ocean, and that trash, we are receiving in our coasts … it’s like someone putting a gun on your head and telling you that you must receive that … it’s coming from everywhere, it’s too much … every year, it’s more and more…”, he says.
Unfortunately, Easter Island’s perils are not unique to them: in several other coastal regions around the world, sea waves have stopped bringing shells that you could collect on a golden summer’s evening, and instead, bring crushed bottles, wrappers, tyres … the possibilities are endless.
Elsewhere, researchers around Lake Ontario found samples of microplastics in every single fish tested from the lake—one of the world’s largest freshwater systems. Interestingly, most of these plastics did not come from household wastes, but from pellets used as raw materials in the production facilities nearby. Out in the oceans, while one in every four
fishes had plastics, the existence of five continent-size tires, and estimate that, continuing at the present rate, our oceans will have more plastic than fishes by 2050, is evidence enough of the degree of the problem.
No matter how producers of raw plastic and plastic products—the perpetrators of this insanity—wish to shift the blame, it’s quite clear that we can’t rid ourselves of plastic simply by cleaning or even recycling. In fact, only a very small, rather insignificant, share of plastics produced are actually recyclable, and far less is recycled indeed. In all fairness, it’s
probably not even possible to recycle, given the massive and continuous supply of plastic and the consequent waste.
Moreover, for a long time, the real face of the Western world’s “recycling endeavours” was shipping (selling, that is) their used plastics first to China, and later, to poor nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and so on. That’s a whole different story, but it’s noteworthy how thousands of lives in these third-world countries are exposed to the toxins of the “civilized” world.
Unless we break the chain, there is probably no way out
Among the higher rungs of both corporate and governmental administrations, there has been much contemplations and preachings about how to handle the waste, how to recycle them, and so on. There have also been large-scale cleaning operations in mid oceans, as well as on the shores and inland. Yet, in reality, most of these actions are only half-
effective, if not utter eyewash.
Unless the petrochemical giants who produce plastic and the MNCs that earn huge profits from selling plastic products are held accountable and made to take responsibility, mere cleaning (no matter how large-scale) is not going to help. We need to shift away from this fossil-fuel-driven world order which thrives on “planned obsolescence”—the calculating act of making products that become obsolete after a certain while, compelling consumers to buy more.
Shocking as it may be, this is the reality. The next time your phone—with
numerous plastic parts within the “metal body”—feels slow when the company releases a new model, it’s probably not coincidental.
As such, the plastic trade thrives, or better to say feeds upon, our disposable lifestyles. We are made to consume stuff that we “never knew we needed”, and as if under some hypnotic intoxication, we oblige. Unwilling to face the truth, we fall prey to lustrous advertisements and consume objects that we already have or could very well do without. We throw away “old things” to make space for new ones, for reasons which are mostly imaginary.
For instance, say, I need a new shirt for every week of the day to look professional.
Some might argue that in speaking of things not made of plastic, I am digressing. To them: the packaging industry is one of the biggest perpetrators of the plastic problem and generates the greatest share of non-recyclable, single-use plastic. To name a few, these include packings on clothes, fast-food and packaged-food wrappers, disposable cutlery,
clamshell containers, and sachets.
That being said, we as buyers have more power than we realise when it comes to holding brands accountable, compelling them to mend their ways. As the first steps, we can inculcate the consciousness of consuming only as much as we truly need: a question that we must ask ourselves, and not let the brands decide. While consciously avoiding its cliches and stereotypes, it’s high time that we live “slow” and sustainable lives.
Probably, this could also bring us the mental peace that we have been running after and paying for, for a long time now. It’s important to realise that every bit of plastic that we have thrown “away”, has only piled up in our own backyards, and for those who cannot afford a backyard, at their
Getting creative in the household
Charity begins at home, it is often said. In the context of how we approach the plastic problem, this is true in so many ways. For one, we could stop perceiving ourselves as isolated beings, realising that we are components of nature, and thus, not separate from its existence.
Our well-being is inherently related to that of the natural world and each of its other parts—marine and terrestrial animals, plants, and even microbes. That is to say, we need to be responsible for our actions and accept accountability for their consequences. For instance, knowing that a straw we put into a dustbin in India, could very well end up choking a turtle in the South Pacific ocean.
Contemplating how our mentalities are a part of the plastic problem and how changing it could become a part of the solution, we could go on and on. Yet, within the limited scope of this article, I must abstain from doing so, not that I am adequately able to do justice to the subject. Anyway, the point is, some habitual changes—bouts of creativity in the household—can help us in our struggle against plastics.
Although they might apparently seem that way, most things are not really disposable: putting enough thought, there is usually a way to put one thing to another use. Plastic packets that we get from supermarkets or grocery stores can become a perfect book- covers—durable and waterproof. Wine bottles can replace plastic water bottles.
In fact, even those who do not have wine bottles at hand can buy glass or copper bottles to use instead of plastic. From experience, I know that not only the bottles last longer, the water also tastes better.
Shopping for essentials as well as luxury items, we bring home a range of
containers—some made of metals, but most of plastics. Instead of throwing them away, we can use them to store a variety of things at home: jewelry, stationery, spices, and lots of other things.
Of course, these are only some of the endless possibilities. If one looks around and lets their creativity reign, there will definitely be a lot more, specific to their conditions. It cannot be stressed enough that each one of us needs to take action, while also compelling the greater perpetrators to do the same.
This July, let us all contribute to the #PlasticFreeJuly campaigns going on around the world, and bit by bit, let us move towards a plastic-free world. A world, that is healthy for all, from the Everest to the Trench of Mariana.
If we do not break the chain of plastic pollution now, probably we will suffer forever—that is, if we survive that long.
(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)