Plastic pollution and environmental issues are on the media agenda almost every day. We asked MiNDSPACE magazine columnist Tom Eaton to try going plastic-free for a week, and this is what he learned in the process.
Amoebas, microbes, crustaceans… and plastic
The Mariana Trench, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, is a sickle-shaped plunge into the bottom of the world.
Few species haunt its lower abyss, almost 11 kilometres down in the crushing darkness. Fish seldom venture deeper than 8 kilometres. Huge crustaceans inhabit the extreme universe beyond that point, armoured against the cold and the pressure. At its deepest point, however, the only life seems to consist of large amoebas and microbes.
It is, in other words, the most inaccessible place on Earth. It should be as untouched by humans as some distant asteroid beyond the solar system. And yet, when explorer Victor Vescovo piloted a submersible to its deepest part in May, and found himself 10 927 metres below sea level, he also found something else: a plastic bag and plastic sweet wrappers.
Plastic – our plastic – is everywhere. There is nowhere it hasn’t touched. There is nowhere it isn’t piling up. And it’s no longer out of sight in a landfill or at the bottom of the sea.
Plastic is now inside our bodies, too. A study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology estimates that the average American consumes up to 52 000 tiny plastic particles in a year and breathes in another 20 000.
There is a somewhat despairing point of view that personal action, like refusing plastic bags or straws, is largely pointless given the tsunami of pollution pumped out by vast multinationals that enjoy the protection of cynical governments.
Perhaps reducing the amount of plastic we use is merely palliative. But that bag in the Mariana Trench was used and discarded by one individual – maybe even me.
Which is why, when MiNDSPACE asked me to go plastic-free for one week, I eagerly agreed. It would be enlightening. It would be inspiring.
It would also be a complete failure.
Don’t get me wrong. I definitely reduced the amount of plastic I used. I declined dozens of straws and bags and coffee-cup caps. I drank non-fizzy water out of a glass bottle. I sniffed out unpackaged fruit and vegetables. I got my bread wrapped in brown paper and my meat wrapped in white.
But 100% plastic-free? Not even close. Because, of course, the world is made of plastic. I could seek out shops that sold (a few) unpackaged food items, but I had to drive to them in a car full of plastic, pay for them with debit cards made of plastic, and store them in fridges and freezers lined with plastic. Even this column, all about breaking free of the blasted stuff, was written on a plastic keyboard and sent to my editor through a plastic router.
Cutting down on plastic, I also discovered, is expensive: buying a glass jar of organic toothpaste soothes the conscience, but at over R100 a pop it’s murder on a budget.
In the end it was just a week and all rather fun, but the economics and logistics of plastic are vast and terrifying. The global economy eats and breathes plastic. Billions of people rely on it to keep themselves fed, clothed and sheltered. Hundreds of millions cannot afford greener alternatives. It is more than a substance; it is part of the DNA of modernity. We can no more banish it than we can wish away money, cities or industrialised food supplies.
Until humanity finds a way to reinvent itself, however, we can strive for the small wins.
So, next time you see a picture of a mountain of plastic waste or if that eco-brick you’re making feels a little futile, just remember one simple truth: You cannot prevent the next shopping bag from sinking to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But you can make damned sure it’s not yours.
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