Plastic crisis

Wendy Damerell, Devil’s Peak

Since I first learnt of the ocean plastic crisis (in 2007), I tried to do what I could to raise awareness of the issue, including three years of volunteering with Greenpeace Africa.

It is now 2019 (12 years on) and no effort has been made by our food and clothing retailers to stop bringing new, extra plastic into the world.

Most of us believe that by tossing plastics into the recycling bin, they will be recycled. Yet only 9% of plastic that has ever been manufactured has made its way into a recycling plant. The rest of it is out there somewhere.

Cape Town sends masses of plastic waste into the ocean. We don’t mean to but we do. Our negligence combined with our strong winds sees to this. Satisfied that someone else removes our garbage, we seldom think about where it ends up. Littering is commonplace – in five decades in Cape Town, not once have I seen somebody receive a fine.

Single-use items (it doesn’t matter what material they are made from) create a lot of pollution. Even if “biodegradable” they can easily be ingested by a marine animal prior to biodegrading. The more there are of these items, the greater the onslaught on nature. The truth is we need immediately to stop bringing more plastic into the world and only use as little as is possible to get by with. Did you know that a polystyrene cup takes a million years to decompose?

Every bottle of water you buy stimulates the demand for one additional plastic bottle to be manufactured and arrive on earth. We have a system of pipes and taps from which drinkable water is available to us – cleaner than in many other places. Bottled spring water may taste nicer but what a price we’re paying for the pleasure. Selling bottled water did not exist when I was growing up. Indeed, I was shocked the first time I encountered it. My thoughts were: “Could such a thing really be happening?”

As we begin a new year, let’s stop burying our heads in the sand. Even if you can’t become an activist, notice over the course of this year how much plastic passes through your hands on a daily basis. Multiply that by 6 billion people using take-away coffee cups, straws, take-away food containers and imagine what that looks like in the ocean.

Imagine the effect a small, plastic ring-like closure on a milk bottle could have on a bird or animal. How about the tiny plastic grips which keep your plastic bread bag closed? I am still haunted by the scene from Blue Planet 2 of the whale holding on to her dead calf for days – the calf was likely poisoned by her own mother’s milk. We have polluted the sea so much it has become virtually uninhabitable for those whose home it has always been.

Recently, I realised how I have changed when at the end of a restaurant meal, we were each handed a single peppermint encased in a plastic wrapper. Instead of feeling delighted and rewarded, I felt angry and disgusted with the restaurant. Do we honestly still need this kind of packaging?

On my regular walk from my car to the mall, I was picking up so many small, hard pieces of plastic converging around the stormwater drains and there is no dustbin in sight. I got upset each time, so I placed a small cardboard box in my boot where I can “bin” the plastic. It takes hardly any energy to bend down and pick up a few pieces when they are right at your feet.

I’d like to suggest more people with cars adopt this practice. If you’re squeamish, keep hand sanitiser and cloth in your boot. If we all did this, it would solve many problems as we wait for less plastic to be made.

Our health and our very lives depend on no more plastic entering the environment. If we pull together, supermarkets will soon find their plastic bottled liquids are not moving as fast as before and will place smaller orders with beverage manufacturers, who will in turn place smaller orders with plastic manufacturers. Every plastic bottle you can leave on the shop shelf is an act of mercy and self-preservation.