Addressing plastic pollution

What about nature’s worth?

It’s our planet’s womb…

What about forest trails?

Burnt despite our pleas… – Earth Song, Michael Jackson (1995)

Humankind’s stewardship of the earth, for the most part, has been deficient. In the name of progress, we have burnt and deforested land, polluted the air, depleted the ozone layer, destroyed the habitat of animals, and choked the seas, oceans and other waterways with trash, among other reprehensible behaviours.

Once a year, on April 22, some inhabitants of the world pay lip service to attempts to remedy these ills with the observance of Earth Day. There is usually high visibility in the organisation of celebrations, the hosting of workshops, the crafting of carefully worded press releases, the posting of comforting messages on social media and participation in events planned to mark the day, particularly if there is likely to be an opportunity for a photo op. But for some folks, Earth Day is every day and therefore, there is no need to make a special effort. There is so much constancy in their determination to reduce their carbon footprint and those of others that extra special efforts are always being made. The earth, gasping as it is from the relentless assault by both the ignorant and the uncaring, thus receives a much-needed respite. A lot more is needed. There is much more that can be done.

Local Earth Day observances included a ‘no plastic day’ in which seven supermarkets sought to reward the first 20 shoppers to take along reusable bags while doing their shopping. It was fitting, since ‘End Plastic Pollution’ was chosen as the theme for Earth Day this year and will continue as a multi-year campaign to the 50th anniversary of the observance in 2020. Plastic, much like fire, as the saying goes, is a good servant, but a bad master. Unfortunately, humans have allowed plastic to dominate. The single-use variety—such as water and soda bottles, straws and packaging used in the manufacture and distribution of food and other items—have created huge problems over the years.

It is worth mentioning here that much of this plastic is petroleum based and therefore is not biodegradable. This means that these throwaway items find their way into landfills. While they do not decompose, which is really what matter taken to landfills is supposed to do, they do break down after many years into smaller pieces, releasing the chemical additives that were used to shape and harden them. Many of these chemicals are toxic and make their way into our bloodstreams by way of our food and water supplies. Plastics are also unscrupulously dumped into waterways and end up in our oceans, and in both places they cause blockages and pollution as well as serious harm and death to marine life.

Further, according to the Department of Public Information, “a proposed plan that could affect a ban on the use of plastic items will be presented to Cabinet for its consideration.” This was announced during the Ministry of the Presidency’s Department of Environment’s Earth Day celebrations at State House, the release said. And it is the Department of the Environment which has prepared this proposal, Minister of State Joseph Harmon was quoted as saying in the release. It reportedly proposes reducing the importation of plastics leading to a complete ban by 2020.

Well, Zip-a-dee-doo-dah! It is wonderful, is it not, that both the government and (some) of the private sector seem to be moving in the same, right direction? All that would be needed now would be to get John and Jane Public fully onboard. But hold on before you get too carried away. Did the government really need to wait for Earth Day 2018 to consider a proposal to act on plastic pollution? The supermarkets that are being addressed here, some of them at any rate, have been trying for years, sans legislation, to push an end-to-plastics agenda, so let us just focus on government.

If we went back just as far as 2005 when the Great Flood occurred, we would recall that in countering the accusations of neglect of the drainage and irrigation infrastructure, which would have prolonged the flood, the authorities had pointed to the high incidence of garbage pollution of the waterways. They were not wrong. The evidence was there for anyone who wanted to see it: tonnes and tonnes of Styrofoam and plastics in drainage structures everywhere. There have been clean-up efforts and Styrofoam has been banned, but the problem remains. It surfaces every time there is a flood and even when there isn’t. Two major contributors to this problem are the inundation of single-use plastics in the country and the lack of enforcement of anti-littering legislation, both of which can be fixed.

So, no, government did not need the prompting of Earth Day’s ‘End Plastic Pollution’ theme to act. In fact, moves to address throwaway plastic items should have been on the table right after 2016’s Styrofoam ban, building on that momentum. By now, Guyana would have been well on the way to what it hopes to achieve by 2020, joining Kenya and Costa Rica which have already taken steps in this direction. Several other countries have also banned plastic bags including Germany, South Africa, Botswana, Ethiopia, Samoa, South Korea, Singapore and Sweden.

In a country that is promoting a Green State Development Strategy this should have been government’s instinctive next step. Instead, one gets the impression that this decision came out of a hat labelled, ‘What should we do for Earth Day?’ and that makes it feel fake, like plastic, when it is in fact very necessary. The truth is that if we treated the earth the way we ought to, Earth Day would be just a day set aside to stop and smell the roses.

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