"Brown paper packages tied up with strings…these are a few of my favourite things…” sang Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music.
Not that long ago, most of our wrapping would dissolve into the earth like fallen leaves. Now, though, we are firmly in the era of plastic packaging.
As far as we know, the story of plastic began with the Olmecs of Mexico, who used a naturally occurring version of it 3,500 years ago from the sap of gum trees to make rubber balls for their games. More recently, mankind figured out how to mix oil and natural gas with resins to create tiny clear pellets called nurdles that can be moulded into all manner of shapes.
Plastic, with its light weight, strength, malleability and low cost, has emerged as an amazingly useful product that is found absolutely everywhere. Therein lies the problem. For, the dark side of the omnipresence of plastic and its ability to last for millennia on end is only now being understood. It’s a side we have failed to manage, and are now being haunted by.
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Since 1950, the production of plastic has doubled each decade and it is estimated that nearly 10 billion tonnes have been added to the planet. Geologists say that in eons to come, if the earth is excavated, the layer we represent will be marked by plastic.
Much of the plastic produced ends up in trash, with rivers acting as conveyor belts in transporting it to the seas and oceans. Afloat on the top, it gets broken down by the sun over time to microscopic pieces that make their way into everything—even the alimentary canals of living creatures, from the enormous blue whale to the tiniest plankton. The swirl of winds and ocean currents has ensured microplastics have reached everywhere—even the remotest islands and most pristine parts of our planet. A taxidermist I met in the Faroe Islands near the Arctic Circle said he was deeply perturbed to find plastic in the bellies of puffins. Ten years ago, a scientist in Antarctica’s Palmer Station showed me a picture of a bottle-cap stuck in the throat of a dead Gentoo penguin.
Plastic, then, has become a dire threat to our ecosystems, to wildlife and to us humans.
The film, A Plastic Ocean (on Netflix), highlights the fact that while there’s general plastic and Styrofoam rubbish such as bottles and slippers bobbing everywhere, 60% of the plastic in the ocean is made up of discarded fishing nets and lines that continue to trap and kill marine wildlife such as fish, turtles, crabs and aquatic birds.
Nations such as Bangladesh, Rwanda and Kenya have been at the forefront of banning single-use plastic bags. But while there isn’t currently a viable solution to remove plastic from the ocean, there are people on a mission to upcycle the rubbish. Heather Koldewey, for instance, has an enterprise called Networks that employs Pacific Islanders to extract discarded fishing nets from the deep. After they are collected, cleaned and packed, they are sent to Europe and recycled as yarn that is dyed in variety of colours and turned into carpets.
Artist Vinita Khanna, who works at the Imperial College London, is interested in using ubiquitous and abundant waste materials in her installations. She has creatively cut up used plastic milk-containers into multi-petal flowers and torn old magazines to make vibrant collages.
While we await genius alternatives (and some, like bags made of potato skin starch, are already in use) and solutions to break down plastic (such as letting waxworms, mealworms and microbes feed on it), let’s be mindful of our demands on plastic and reduce them as much as possible and become even more particular about separating waste plastic for recycling.
A laudable new concept that emulates the shops of the past is one where you can refill almost everything you keep in a kitchen or bathroom without using new packaging or having to throw away a hill of empty containers.
The Source, a shop with branches in London, is based on the concept of refilling a vast array of goods in the same containers, over and over again. Here (www.thesourcebulkfoods.co.uk), you can take your containers and refill them with shampoo, conditioner, liquid soap, body lotion, cereals, pulses, beans, flour, water, oil, household cleansers, dried fruits, herbs, vitamins and pretty much everything you need. The items are sold by weight or volume and you can either use their marked containers or take your own. The weight of your empty container is measured pre- and post-fill.
Some of the larger grocery stores in the UK and other countries, such as Whole Foods and Planet Organic, have concessions where one can refill one’s large containers.
Mega-tonnes of plastic are being saved in this fashion. It’s exactly like refilling one’s car with petrol directly at the station. In a way, you are taking your kitchen and bathroom to a refuelling station.
Each one of us can do our bit by eschewing single-use plastic, such as grocery bags, straws and packaging products. Refuse any extra packaging you can do without. A lightweight reusable bag kept in one’s handbag or backpack can heft much of our daily shopping. Carrying a washable cup or bottle would save thousands of plastic containers and lids over decades.
Khanna, the artist, has even taken to making her own shampoo, toothpaste and deodorant. Her mantra: “desire less, buy less, waste less.” Small actions by lots of people can make a big difference.
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. She can be followed on Instagram @Geetikaforest.