Plastic: not so fantastic

Video footage taken last week and shared online more than a million times since, to expressions of disgust and outrage from many, shows sluggish waves of waste, mostly plastics, hitting the shoreline at Montesinos Beach in the Dominican Republic capital following a storm. The footage of the wave of mostly plastic marine debris, including beverage bottles and takeaway containers, was filmed by the environmental non-profit organisation Parley for the Oceans.

While there have been similar scenes in Bali, the Philippines, Mumbai, Hawaii and the UK, the Parley video, in which the garbage appeared to be almost choking the water, causing it to seem to struggle to the shoreline, drew a great deal of consternation, particularly in these parts. Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened in the Dominican Republic and it is unlikely to be the last as it occurs whenever there is a storm, locals say. And there has been no letting up in the pollution of the rivers that send the garbage to the sea. Garbage/plastic pollution frequently shows up along Guyana’s coastal shore as well. The Guyana International Volunteer Effort and other environmentally conscious groups clean up the beaches in the Georgetown on a regular basis. The fact that the clean up is ongoing is evidence of the fact that environmental awareness and education are not having the desired impact.

For the most part, the problem is non-biodegradable plastics. Undoubtedly, the early inventors of plastics did not see it becoming the current disaster it is. History tells us that the first creation plastic was in fact biodegradable; they were fashioned out of plant and animal materials. Much later on, scientists discovered that fossil fuels could be used to make synthetic plastics and there was what could be called the plastic revolution. Here it was, a lightweight, durable material that was malleable and could be used in the manufacture of vehicles, clothing, furniture, kitchen items, toys, bags, bottles – practically everything under the sun. Fantastic, right? Plastics replaced metal that rusted, glass that broke, gave stretchiness to fabrics; it could also be used in the medical profession in a number of ingenious ways. In addition, it was waterproof, and could be made to be either heat or freeze proof or both – what else could mankind ask for?

The world gloried in this cheap alternative to everything it had been used to before, and plastic became king. In fact, it turned out to be so prolific that in the 1950s manufacturers around the world produced 2 million tonnes of it and in 2015, 380 million tonnes were produced. Good right? Well only for the manufacturers, because long before 2015, scientists and environmentalists had discovered that synthetic plastics were the bane of the earth. Testing done years ago had proven that the toxicity level in most synthetic plastics was not only unhealthy, but dangerous. Some of the chemicals, like BPA for example, were banned, but manufacturers could still produce plastics using other methods. The mass production had caused serious problems, because no quid-pro-quo method of collecting and recycling plastic had been put in place from the get go. Users of the products were accustomed to throwing them out and many of the items coming off the factory lines were single use only. Pollution was the result.

The environmental damage being done to the earth and its waterways has already had a huge toll on the flora and fauna. It has been estimated that only 10 percent of plastic waste is recycled, 13 percent is incinerated, and 77 percent ends up either in landfills or in the environment. Apart from the ugliness and nastiness of the pollution, the elements break down, but do not destroy plastics and the minuscule pieces end up being ingested by fish, which is then eaten by humans. In short, humans have created a vicious cycle in which they poison themselves. It would be laughable, except that this is no joking matter. 

So as trillions of dollars are being spent on repairing the damage to the planet, which now includes human health issues; sadly, the wheel of plastic in-plastic out continues to spin.

Some fear that synthetic plastic is so pervasive that it will never be contained; the current situation will never be reversed, and we will consistently leave the planet worse off than we found it, forever damning posterity. However, others have found reason to hope in research, which has found that bio-renewable plastics could in the future be made from plant products – sugar being one such material and algae being another. But this could all come to naught if every attempt is not made right now to put a serious dent in the usage of single use plastics and to put a halt to the contamination of the environment. If every person reading this eliminated the use of a single plastic item from their lives today, even that would be a start.   

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