I have often found myself wondering lately why and how my obsession with plastics, rubbish, recycling and the environment has grown since I have been in Fiji from a shaking of my head whilst on the bus, to a commitment to go alone collecting plastic bottles in the rain on Sunday afternoons at home to organising community clean ups to starting to write about it constantly, starting a facebook page CleanupFiji dedicated to it, thinking about it, dreaming about it. Even my concept of what is plastic, what is rubbish, what is recycling, or recylable has changed.
Every day as the concept becomes clearer in my mind, it also becomes clear to me that the more I find out the less I really know. My concept of how multinationals, plus individuals such as you and I not just contribute but CREATE the problem is morphing. I used to think, what harm can it really do if I get my soy sauce in the little plastic sushi fish container that they give with every pack of sushi lunch? I know that most people don’t recycle them, but maybe someday things will change. I once asked last year at my local work place cafe how many sushi fish plastic soy sauce bottles they might use in a day. The lady quickly told me that in one day, that small cafe would use about 8 big bags, which would be about 8,000 of them. I started seeing them everywhere I looked. Tip: with solid waste, the tip is to look DOWN a lot of the time. Still, I didn’t do anything. I started joking with my teenage and adult sons about making a little comic cartoon for youtube with the sushi fish that found its way to the plastic garbage island – maybe that would raise awareness. I never did anything. I always talked to my friends about how great it would be to go back to the days we remembered as kids where there were no supermarkets, and every corner had a local shop, a local butcher. No need for mum to have a car, as we all walked to the shops on errands and brought our stuff back in paper bags or cold things wrapped in newspaper. I never did anything. I still used to 95% of the time drive my car to the local supermarket which was less than 500 meters away from my house.
I now live that kind of life here in Fiji in a way, where I have no car, I have to walk to the local shop, butter is still wrapped in paper, and on every corner there is someone selling fruit, vegetables or eggs, what went wrong? Why is the picture I had in my mind about going back to community style life, and the real picture so jarringly wrong. What has made me unsettled? I have come to the conclusion that is is the plastic, plastic everywhere. It doesn’t fit with the naive picture I had in my mind’s eye.
Not that I came to Fiji for a sea change. I married a Fijian so this is where we moved to. But, I have realised that the picture I had in my head of the type of life where people still know each other’s names and life is less focused on consumerism is a memory – a real memory – of what life was like when I was growing up in Brisbane. There was very little plastic then. The chemist still mixed the medicine in the apothecary, and put it into glass bottles and jars, the jams, drinks and all manner of other preserved foods still were in jars that you could re-use or return for a coin. The cheeses, meats and small goods were still sold out of a display fridge at the local grocer, and wrapped in paper for you to take home. Instead of everyone needing a car, if you had a big shop, the local grocer (who happened to be my dad) would deliver it to your house. He was the only one who needed a car or van in the neighbourhood! In fact, I went with dad as his “off-sider” so often and heard him call out “Rocer” as he approached the front door of our customers’ homes with a cardboard box with the order in it balanced on his shoulder that I thought his name was Rocer. Actually, he was calling out “Grocer”, but never mind. I can still see him in my mind’s eye as he did the rounds, me in tow. He is even now a small but very strong man, with always a twinkle in his eye and a little joke for the ladies. Life then was geared around walking. The school rule was that if it was pouring with rain in the wet season, children were not to wear their shoes or sandals whilst walking to school as they would be ruined and would not last. I remember feeling a real sense of sadness when my own kids were growing up and were in grade 1 and 2, that their school announced that all children must wear shoes at all times at school, even in the playground as otherwise they might get cut with broken glass. A loss of innocence.
Now, finally, being confronted with a beautiful community life, in a beautiful paradise – Fiji – I am finally motivated to do something. Why, because the results of my previous life where I thought it didn’t matter if we bought things in plastic bottles and bags as long as we did the “right thing” with them, are here to haunt me. Doing the “right thing” is relatively easy in a developed nation. It is not easy or accessible here in a developing nation. It is hard! It is made hard! Big plastic producers do not want to make it easy, why would they? They have no need to worry as the world is full of picture postcard images of developing nations as beaches, coconut trees and smiling faces. Yes, there are beaches, coconut trees, smiling faces, communities. Yes, it is paradise. Yes, I am very fortunate that I met and married my husband. But, in this paradise, the excesses of the West, without the inbuilt controls are frighteningly real. The perceived need for products and in particular products wrapped or bottled in plastic, is rampant. The mechanism for getting rid of the plastics, close to non-existent, and a secret closely guarded and defended by two of the major players, Coca Cola Amatil Fiji, and Fiji Water.
I just spent a little while watching the feature length documentary called Plasticized. If you have the time, it is worth a watch. It is not hard going, but more an independent film about an ocean research journey on a yacht, with a little bag that trawls for nurdles. One big take away from the film that I got which is timely – even plastic which is touted or promoted as “biodegradable” will only biodegrade in a properly managed land fill (which do not exist much in the developing world). It will not biodegrade once it
reaches the ocean, it will “photodegrade”. This means that the sunlight will start to break the plastic down into smaller and smaller pieces until it is the size of plankton (and probably smaller). From the most minute organism, to the filter feeding whales, this is their diet. Plastic particles now outstrip plankton in the oceans by 6:1, they say. Additionally, chemicals from industrial waste, oils and the like actually attach themselves to the plastic nurdles, which act as a sponge. The jelly fish, crabs, fish and other marine animals ingest the plastic with their food, and with it the chemicals. The effect of the chemicals and plastics biomagnifies up the food chain, until we eat it. To view the film click here.
Next, I will announce the cartoon youtube challenge to make a video about a sushi fish who found his way to the plastic islands in the oceans…. stay tuned. Actually, the sushi fish (soy sauce bottle), once reaching the ocean, will eventually photodegrade and become part of your sushi fish (lunch).
The film maker joined the crew on the small boat and sailed, collecting data all the way to, and into the great pacific garbage patch. He did not get the chance, as he wished, to swim through bobbing waves of intact plastic bottles and computer screens, even though some of those were still intact. More that the ocean is actually a thick soup of suspended plastic.
In the film, one person commented, “To make something that is meant to be used for a minute, but lasts for a lifetime, is actually evil”. It made me think about how many times I just used things for a minute, and then had to dispose of them. Even here, I still do, but a lot less than I used to, as here in Fiji, I have to actually THINK, how I am going to dispose of it. It doesn’t automatically happen like it seemed to back home. I have to actually engage in the process.