I know that so many people are so weary of posts on the big nasties: Climate change, plastic in the ocean, single use plastics, dumping on the reef, turtles wrapped in beer holders and other depressing topics. I know that I used to be. Now I feel obsessed.
I used to not take much more than a cursory glance at these things thinking often that I just didn’t understand it enough, or alternately, that the headline and picture spoke a thousand words, and that was about 999 words too much to take in after a busy day at work before having a glass of wine and watching re-runs of “Friends” or perpetually planning to go to the gym, rarely making it past my runners with the socks hopefully stashed inside.
Today on Facebook I came across a new video called “Plastic Seas”. To watch the film see http://vimeo.com/69689785
Over the last twelve months, I have had a change in lifestyle, having moved to Fiji. So many changes have happened even here in the year since I started this blog. Many of them positive: I have been contacted by people all around the world who want my insights on social problems in Fiji. I have been contacted by people wanting information about where to buy shipping containers to make school classrooms and kindergartens. I have been contacted by people who want to know how and where to recycle in Fiji. Now, maybe due to the little bits of information I have posted, perhaps I have been an unwitting catalyst in the advent of the shipping container classrooms such as at Basden College, Newtown in Suva. I would like to think so in my own small way, that I have made some difference. I have led a local clean up in my old street that resulted in 10 tonnes of trash (mainly plastic) being picked up out of the drains and waterways in one morning.
I have had a lot of time to research as a “citizen scientist” and have learned so much. As the old saying goes, the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.
If you only watch one video on the plastic problem, and possible solution this is a good one. It seems to encapsulate the main points. It is always useful in any academic or commercial exercise to think about what you would say about your topic or business in two short minutes if asked by a lay person, stranger, or client. If you can encapsulate your main points in a two minute “nutshell” then that means that you really understand what you are on about.
So, here goes: my two minute nutshell on single use plastics……
For me, I can type about as fast as I can talk as I am old enough to have learned shorthand and typing at school when only the girls who went to secretarial college did so, on an old fashioned typewriter. How I conned my parents into that I still don’t know, but I digress!
Two minutes starts now: Since having moved to Fiji and seeing the enormous amount of plastic waste in the environment, I have started to question why it is there. It is everywhere in the world, not just here. It is a plain truth that most of the plastics I see here are single use PET plastic drink bottles, and plastic shopping bags. People of our generation and the next have been somehow hoodwinked into thinking that everything that comes in plastic is somehow more worthwhile, more necessary than the things we used to make do with (such as water from the tap, a paper straw, a shopping bag you had to take with you, or a drink that is not carbonated, and maybe came in glass). Also, we somehow now NEED chicken and meat that is wrapped in plastic, ice cream in a plastic tub or wrapper, and our children NEED an enormous amount of single serve snacks.
Most of these packages are recyclable in some way, but only about 10% of them get recycled, and about 10% of them end up in the oceans. Some of them are biodegradable and marketed thus, but are only biodegradable if sent to a “properly managed landfill” of which there are next to none in third world or developing nations. Herein lies the real issue.
If the plastics reach the dump site that is not a modern “properly managed” site, most of the dumps are near the mangroves. Leechates infiltrate the water, and are toxic, highly so (especially with the introduction of e-waste into developing countries). Once plastics reach the ocean, even if intact with the caps screwed on, they do not biodegrade, they PHOTODEGRADE. This means that the sun breaks down the plastics into smaller and smaller pieces until they are called “nurdles”.
These nurdles are chemical attractants. That means that they attract any chemical that is in our ocean, from agricultural chemicals, fuels, and pesticides, just like if you have a take away container with your curry lunch, and want to re-use it, it is very difficult to get the curry out without an enormous amount of dishwashing liquid (so you throw it away anyway, a bit hurt that it seems so unfair). The plastics in all sizes accumulate and spiral in the ocean in five enormous gyres. The five gyres are sometimes described as “garbage patches”, most famously the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The edges of the gyres are close to land in some areas, and the plastics spiral out of them and make landfall at odd places, like Hawaii and Alaska, just like if you wet a towel and spin it around, water droplets start radiating out annoyingly.
Most people are not overly worried about plastics in the oceans, as they think that it is the actual plastic that kills the wildlife, and they think, “How much plastic could a small fish/bird/turtle actually eat??? Not that much, so the risk is small. I will continue to get a lid on my takeaway coffee and always act confused when I am not sure which bin to put it in.”
They are right, the plastic would take a long time to dissolve in the stomach of an animal, so it is unlikely that the animal would actually get “poisoned” by the plastic.
The animals actually get poisoned very quickly by the cocktail of chemicals that is stuck to the plastic pieces (nurdles) which quickly are released during digestion.
Other animals consume so many nurdles that are the same colour and size as their natural food source, that they die from bowel obstruction. These animals include whales (they can consume up to 37 kg of plastic before they die), sea birds on Lord Howe Island and over 40% of a species of albatross.
I wonder what the Ancient Mariner would say about the death of so many ominous birds?
So, what to do? Who is responsible?
There are so many reports from various government and non-government organizations naming particular departments or bodies, but it occurs to me that all of the plastics we use are marketed to us as necessary for our convenience or safety, or “freshness”. Recently I was shocked when in Australia at a hospital to find a banana vending machine, with every hand of bananas wrapped safely in plastic in the glass case.
Actually, it seems to me that the majority of products that we have been marketed to believe we NEED are profit driven, and we are simply consumers. Stupid ones. How many bottles of carbonated beverages do we need? Do we actually need to drink sparkling this, or cola that? Not really. Do we really NEED the convenience of having our sushi soy sauce come in a little plastic fish container with a little plastic red lid so that our soy sauce will stay “safe” on the way back to the office? Not really. We used to pour the soy sauce and get the ginger from receptacles on the counter at the cafe, and we were ok with it, until we were told not to be.
Some people think that the drink manufacturers should show that they are corporately socially responsible and instigate community awareness programs encouraging consumers to recycle, and provide recycling bins. This is flawed logic.
Remember the days when every bottle proclaimed the owner? Property of Tristrams, property of Coca Cola bottling, property of John Walker and Sons FOREVER and EVER. Some time in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s the manufacturers came up with an idea (probably a very smart corporate lawyer) that if you stopped claiming ownership of the bottle, then the onus of responsible disposal shifted from the producer to the consumer.
So why is it now the problem of the producer to clean up the mess that each consumer chooses to make when they toss a bottle or other plastic item in the wrong place? It isn’t – legally you bought the bottle, and it contained a drink.
Therefore, the solution can only be one – for consumers to take responsibility. Of course, this can be done by pressuring producers, but not in the manner of asking them to take back their junk. It ceased to be theirs the moment you paid for it. That is why Coca Cola in Sydney called the police when Ian Kiernan of Clean Up Australia fame presented outside their corporate office with bags of bottles he wanted them to take back.
The only way that we can make any kind of dent on the producer is to stop consuming things, or insist through withholding our money that we want more responsible packaging. However, people I know who insist on only “buying things that come in glass” are seen almost as weird as those who “only eat fruit that has dropped from the tree”, or vegans who also happen to be soy intolerant. It is a culture of planned single use, planned obsolescence, and a conspiracy of silence regarding plastic waste. The world is being consumed by consumers, I guess that is why the documentary is called “Consumed” not “Produced” as the producers have shifted responsibility.
There are whole beaches in Ghana that are choked metres high with electronic waste. Developed countries send old and broken computers there by the container load as second hand goods rather than waste, with the euphamism that these broken computers are sent to “bridge the technological divide” between developed and third world nations. Whole communities survive no longer on fishing, but on burning the computers to get rid of the plastic casing, and then extracting the small metal components for sale. There is a lone Ghanian researcher who I think may also be just a “citizen scientist” like myself, who is taking photographs of the asset tags that are still stuck to the computers, keeping a data base, and is thinking that he will eventually mount a class action against the previous owners who might be such as ABC Council, or University of XYZ in the developed nation of your choice. I wonder if he ever will.
These same classes of people, who now have no reliable source of fresh drinking water or farming land or fishing grounds (where they once did), are then forced to consume food and drink items that come in plastic. Carbonated drinks of all kinds, water in bottles of all kinds and the like are marketed as a status “feel good” item. It is the domain of the poor to always strive for these small signs of status. Now it is also the domain of the rich. Bottled water is a perfect example. The marketing of Fiji Water especially in social media is a case in point.
Also, the poor, who survive on trash, or are swamped by it, or out-fished by it, seem reluctant to pick much of it up. Plastic drink bottles and aluminum cans for example are worth money in almost every country, even Fiji, however, not many people want to touch them once they leave a clean hand and end up as “trash”.
Why should the poor pick it up? The rich don’t seem to be interested in it either. Culturally, the poor normally mimic the habits of the rich in the effort to appear not to be poor. Perhaps it will take the rich to create a behavioural norm of picking up what is now classed as “trash” or “ocean debris” for the poor to mimic that behaviour, it seems to work for consumption!
Groups like the “Two Hands Project” seem to have cottoned on to this. They post pictures of people who look to be not in poverty who pick up as much as their two hands can pick up in thirty minutes on beaches, parks, and other nice looking places. Simple, effective, and a great tool for people with internet access.
It also can be taken as a consideration that most developing or third world nations (in the Pacific they are tiny islands or groups of Islands which are now termed SIDS or Small Island Developing States) still maintain a chiefly or feudal system, as well as a European style government. The government of the day makes the rules, but daily life is still very traditional. In the chiefly system, individuals would not normally come up with ideas and implement them alone, or even in groups, for fear of being perceived as not respecting the hierarchy of the chiefs and minor chiefs. People have been taught to wait for leadership on an issue, and then follow direction. Today in Fiji, there are still chiefs and village headmen, as well as a government.
In the past, when tribal wars and feuds were the determining factor in loyalty to one chief or another, and also the hierarchy amongst the chiefs, leadership was expected. To maintain one’s status, or indeed life, one had to be a great strategist, very intelligent, a great leader, with an excellent and obedient, unquestioning warrior class, fisher class, farmer class, and a loyal village or villages. Now that tribal wars and feuds are forbidden as an aftermath of Colonialism, chiefs are no longer chosen simply by leadership qualities, but often by birth. The Western World has demanded that democracy be seen to prevail, or sanctions apply. Those born into a chiefly family may not have the necessary skills to be change agents and leaders.
However, as society still operates mainly on traditional values, people await leadership, but it does not necessarily come. Action without leadership is seen in many ways as disrespectful to the community. Action without leadership in the past was seen as a direct challenge to the chiefly title, and cause for a fight. One had to be very sure of loyalty to the idea, and a very good chance of victory over the reigning chief to take independent action.
Could this be the reason that often the problem of trash seems so marked in the developing world? People are awaiting leadership? This is in no way a criticism of current leaders as all the rhetoric is there: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, but without the facility or infrastructure for the populace to do so. I have never seen a recycling bin in Fiji except at one resort island, and at the Coca Cola Plant security office, oh, and at the mini bus stand in Sigatoka.
Recently in Suva, during a tropical depression (pre-cyclonic rain), many streets were flooded without a critical water level being reached. Without exception, the flooding was attributed to blocked drains. Most of the drains are blocked with plastic, but still, the solution does not seem obvious. Agencies are assigned to clean the drains, without heed to the nature of the problem, and the underlying implications. If we can’t stop the people buying plastic, then we must find a way to facilitate a paradigm change and enable the people to recycle it – really recycle it, not just post slogans REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE, without asking ourselves the question – Recycle where? Recycle how?
What is “trash” anyway? It is just our perception.
Perhaps it is also a status thing – I am not that poor that I have to go into the gutter to pick up trash, but I am so poor that I can’t afford shoes for my children, and sometimes just feed them rice and milk, or less. Also, I am not that poor that I need to pick up anything that has been discarded by another, and is therefore “trash”and make anything that I NEED out of it, like a bed, or a chair, or a chicken house, or even a house, or fuel. Certainly in most developing nations, there is little extra head space for “art” either, and it is left to visiting artists with more ephemeral tastes for trash. Trash art also is a great tool for those arty types, or those motivated by art. However, as far as a change agent in the developing nations, it is often the case that those who have been marginalized do not necessarily choose to express their emotions artistically, as in the case of the black diaspora, black slaves sent to South America often depicted themselves as faceless.
This is where it gets interesting. I have not seen anywhere in all my research any one person or organization that has any real power, that has been able to connect the dots.
Most goods that are packaged in plastics and sold in developing nations are owned and produced by companies that are based in developed nations. For example, Fiji Water is made in Fiji, sold worldwide, but owned in the USA. Coca Cola Amatil has a bottling plant in Fiji which proclaims in the front office a commitment and obligation (from every employee) to be environmentally proactive and responsible, and owns or distributes alcohol, sports drinks, water, juice and soft drinks, and is owned by Coca Cola Amatil Australia. The producer of 95% of Fiji’s chicken is Crest, owned by Goodman Fielder, also owned in Australasia. Coca Cola Amatil got back into the beer and cider markets in Australia in December 2013. For more information on brands see http://www.brewsnews.com.au/2013/12/back-in-beer-and-cider/
“About CCA: An ASX Top 30 listed company, CCA is one of Australia’s largest premium branded beverage and food companies and one of the world’s top five Coca-Cola bottlers with territories in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. CCA has a premium spirits beverage business, with a portfolio which includes the premium Beam Global brands, and it acquired the Fiji Brewery and distillery in Fiji and the Vailima Brewery in Samoa in 2012. On December 17 CCA will reenter the Australian beer and cider market with Molson Coors’ brands Coors and Blue Moon; The Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams and Alehouse draught beer and Pressman’s Cider from the Australian Beer Company, CCA’s joint venture with the Casella group. Rekorderlig Cider will join the portfolio in early 2014.”
The developed world feels powerless to help the developing or third world, and feel that it is not something that they can control. Poverty, heartache, sea level rise, oceans devoid of fish, nations being swamped – what can we do, people may think, from here?
What we can do in developed nations is realize that most of the producers of plastic pollutants either at home, or in less developed nations, are based in our own back yards. What we can do is use our consumer power (the only real power we seem to have any more) to either stop buying products produced by those companies in our weekly shop or lunch on the run.
What we can do is ask the question and find the answers to:
- what other countries do you trade in?
- what have you done about recycling there? not just platitudes, but profit figures, number of units produced, number of units recovered through recycling, number of recycling bins, amount of money spent on community programs such as beach cleaning machines, or scholarships
- where do you get your water supply? (it takes over 2 litres of water to produce on litre of most bottled beverages including alcohol)
- where do you dump your industrial waste and is it treated appropriately?
If the answers are not what you are hoping to hear, what are you going to do? Could you forgo your bottled drink or packet of chips at the footy or would it just seem to reactionary?
I have come to the conclusion that if enough of us connect the dots we might see the following and maybe think about taking the appropriate consumer action:
- It is a fact that there is global warming and villages are being inundated by sea, and the polar ice is melting.
- It is a fact that plastic is killing wildlife, not just at sea, but on land. Recently they found that cattle in India are dying from ingesting plastic bags that get stuck in their stomachs.
- It is a fact that obesity and diabetes are on the rise. Fiji has the number one amputation rate per capita in the world from diabetes related infections.
- It is a fact that products that come in plastics are attractive, especially to those who can ill afford them.
- It is a fact that many families in Fiji and other developing nations do not have enough money for food, education, or other necessities, but still consume a large proportion of convenience foods which come wrapped in plastics.
- It is a fact that many plastics are worth money to recycle, but that there is not much of a perceived value as in developing nations, not many people pick them up and trade them in.
- It is a fact that in developing nations, diets have become so poor that there are a high proportion of mothers with anaemia, and infant deaths.
- It is a fact that most producers of plastic wrapped consumer items are based in developed countries, where they must exercise appropriate social responsibility, but continue to trade in developing nations with impunity as there is little robust compliance framework in place.
- It is a fact that weak or developing economies feel powerless to impose stringent compliance networks, and also are too busy trying to provide sanitation, education, and health care.
- It is a fact that civil servants responsible for environment in developing countries are victims of poor education and training and are not up-skilled to cope with the new demands and challenges that are mounting daily.
- It is a fact that teeth are rotting in children and adults in developing countries due to the amount of sugar in processed and packaged foods and carbonated drinks consumed, and lack of money for appropriate dental care.
- It is a fact that archaeologists of the future, or our own grandchildren will not need to dig up the ground to find out what motivated the generation of people with purchasing power since the mid 1960’s – it will be everywhere, and visible, and evident. It will be plastic leftovers from the items we “had to have”.
- It is a fact that most of these items we don’t actually “have to have” but most of them are actually luxuries, and the trimmings of wants rather than needs, but we have been marketed to so successfully that we see our immediate wants as needs.
- It is a fact that these wants are marketed to us for one reason and one reason only – to drive up profits, dividends and attract shareholders for major corporations that are based in developed nations, but trade also in developing nations, to the blissful ignorance of most consumers in the developed world.
- It is a fact that we know all this, but have yet to act.
Sorry Mr Ram – my favourite taxi driver in Levuka Town!
Well, my two minute nutshell was an hour, so maybe I haven’t been able to crystalize my thoughts yet. Maybe my nutshell takes the time of a long taxi ride to the airport. In fact, most people I talk to about this are sorry taxi drivers, who are a captive audience.
Taxi drivers of the Pacific region – please take this as my apology!