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Monday, January 23, 2017

We’ll have to shout ‘stop’ to non-bio plastics, or else...


A few weeks ago, I asked my wife to buy me a 4-pack of branded razor blades when she was in Cork. Each blade, with its plastic frame, is the size of the two lower joints of my small finger. They ‘click’ on to a non-disposable, re-usable handle. The heads come in fours, in a plastic tray, in a plastic package.
The supermarket she went to didn’t have these ‘click-on’ razor heads. It had new style stem-and-razor units, sold in packets of three. The change was unnecessary. Worse, it meant that when the blade wore out, the handle had to be disposed of too.

We use dedicated bins; as always, we wondered if these razors should go in with plastics or with metals. Whichever, here was more unnecessary plastic, and 33% of discarded plastics end up in the sea. Vowing I’d boycott the company, I returned the package unopened to the shop.
A 2016 report from the respected Dame Ellen McArthur Foundation says that every year “at least eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean, the equivalent of one garbage truck emptying into the sea every minute.”
Americans apparently use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, over 80% of which aren’t recycled.

When English yacht woman Ellen McArthur sailed around the world in 2005, breaking the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation, she witnessed plastic afloat on all the oceans, often thousands of miles from land. Research by the foundation finds that only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled, 40% goes to landfill, and up to 33% ends up in the world’s oceans.
Some eight million tons of plastic trash leak into the sea annually, and more year-on-year. Nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists today.
Marine scientists estimate that more than five trillion pieces are already in the oceans and a foundation document avers that: “In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish [by weight].”
While thousands of companies worldwide make more and more plastic packaging — much of which is produced only to glamorise the product — the recent resolution by the giant Unilever company to curtail, and eventually phase out, their use of non-biodegradable plastic is like a light in the Marinas Trench of marine degradation.

Unilever products are used by two billion people daily and its many companies together distribute some 3% of the world’s packaging. This week, the Unilever director, Paul Polman, under pressure from customers and his wife, “increasingly irritated by packaging that couldn’t be recycled”, joins Ms McArthur at the World Economic Forum at Davos to urge other manufacturers to follow his company’s lead.

While Unilever has been accused of using Brexit as a smokescreen to raise grocery prices, it would seem to be sincere in its intention to rejig its ethics vis-a-vis environmental responsibility.
In 2014, it discontinued using micro plastic beads in shampoos and shower gels when science showed that, per shower, 100,000 beads, too small to be filtered out by sewage treatment plants, reach the oceans. There, they are worn down to nano-plastics which are absorbed by plankton, which are then eaten by fish and pass into their bodies. Plastic traces are already in our food and drinking water.
We may soon be like the albatrosses of Midway Island. Recently, I was emailed a shock-horror CNN video documentary called Plastic Island about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch encircling Midway, a tiny atoll located between the USA and Japan, approximately 3,000 miles from each. Its nearest neighbour is Wake Island, 1,027 miles away.

Despite its remoteness from commerce, it is surrounded by floating garbage, its seabed blanked in the stuff, its albatross population suffering massive casualties from feeding their fledglings plastic detritus (mistaking red Coca Cola bottle tops for squid, etc) until they starve, their stomachs unable to digest their contents.

At fledgling time, the island stinks of dead birds. But the plastic effects not just birds and turtles, but all marine life, and the health of the oceans, essential to the health of our planet.
I’m sure many readers join me in rejecting over-packaged goods. We should tell the shop-owners: they’ll tell the reps. Enough complaints will move the manufacturers (as in the Unilever case). The result should be that, like plastic bags, non-biodegradable plastic will ultimately become unacceptable.
Let’s be “part of the solution, not the pollution”.


Damien Enright