A few weeks ago, I read a post by Greta Franklin de Matos about her resolutions for October of going out in an outdoor adventure every day, picking up and photographing the rubbish she encounters in her trails. Greta lives in South Chile in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
By juxtaposing photographs of the beautiful places she explores with photos of the rubbish she collects, Greta attempts to make us aware “of the stuff we consume and discard” and the impact we can have when we decide to make a ripple.
“Have you ever seen a ripple in a lake get smaller? I never have” Greta observes.
If you want to join Greta, “show us what’s in your bag” by posting in social media with the hashtags “#litterati and/or #thereisnoawaytothrowto so we can all see the great work you are doing.”
I would also add #whatsinthebag as is an easy hashtag to remember that really captures this movement and echoes the purchases we make. Many people use this hashtag in Instagram to show off their newly purchased shiny objects. The average American discards a purchase just after 6 months.
“you never know who your ripple might touch, who might embrace your small effort and join you, adding energy and force, and eventually creating the power of a wave.”
-Greta Franklin de Matos
With her words for inspiration I enrolled the whole family, just the three of us, for a walk down the Wexford strand, a place I know it has bits and pieces brought by the tide that are left there.
In fact, since I came to live here I have seen it and left it there, although sometimes I have picked some pieces. I have often looked at the rubbish with the mentality of it’s not my problem, but I’m not part of the solution either. It looks too much of a task and my efforts feel too small and futile.
My three year old loves picking up plastic bottles anytime we go for a walk along the sea so she has us holding the extra bottles that she can’t carry.
So one Saturday in October, we did this for about an hour. I would say we barely made a dent on the rubbish that has been accumulated here over the years. The rubbish does not immediately strike you, since most of it it’s tucked away and doesn’t cover the beach.
As I was picking up the rubbish I couldn’t help by thinking that we are just moving the problem for one place to another, moving the problem somewhere else.
Out of sight, out of mind
Part of the problem with rubbish is that we tend not to see it. Out of sight, out of mind.
I come from a place in Spain where beaches are regularly cleaned and rubbish collected everyday so you have an overall sense of not being a problem at all. The rubbish gets collected and what happens to it? We think there are systems in place to deal with it, nothing to concern ourselves with. I mean who wants to think of rubbish, right?
Sometimes I would have seen things floating in the water but not much. This is the first time that I see what the sea brings.
What is in the bag?
This is what we collected. The rubbish mostly fell under three categories: plastic, glass and cans.
Glass bottles, mainly of alcohol (spirits and wine), and cans of cola and beer. It looks like we drink them and ditch them into the river.
The biggest group is plastic, in some form or another. In order of abundance:
- plastic containers: water, soda and milk bottles, a food container and lid, a plastic cup, a household cleaning product.
- plastic food wrappers from crisps, chocolate bars, packaging around beer cans, netting from fruit and veg.
- toys: a yellow lorry, a stick from a balloon, a polyester toy with plastic wire.
- a big plastic sheet, a bit of hard yellow plastic, a plastic flowerpot, a can of paint, an oil drum, some black tubing, polystyrene sheet.
- Others: a rubber glove and a soft ball.
There is also a lot of soft plastic and clothing that wraps around the branches of the trees making almost impossible to collect unless you have scissors.
It looks like most of the rubbish we collected is around drinking and eating snacks and sweets. A portion of it is alcoholic drinks so I suppose you cannot really be environmentally aware if you are in self-destructive, addictive mode.
The next biggest group is toys that are discarded or lost and somehow end up in the water.
I must say that in spite of being aware of avoiding plastic in my purchases I went to buy a balloon and I got one with a stick, like the one in the picture. Balloons sometimes come with a plastic weight at the end. Next time I buy a balloon I’ll have to examine all components and buy one without plastic. If you buy a packet of balloons, the package is plastic.
The rubbish poses questions like:
- Is it necessary all the packaging around beer cans wrapped in plastic or the netting in fruit and vegetables?
In Spain the fruit comes with no packaging in most fruit shops. However, supermarkets tend to package the fruit and vegetables, even organic ones.
- Are there better alternatives for packaging that can be composted?
Down2earthmaterials is an Irish company that provides certified compostable packaging made from plants to Irish businesses.
The whole experience was quite enjoyable actually. My three year old really got into it and loved putting the bottles in the big bag. I did some exercise, got out of the house, the sun started to shine and we helped the planet or did we?
What happens to this rubbish once we put it back into the system?
The glass bottles and cans can go on the recycling bin. Some of the plastic bottles are recyclable but most of the plastic we collected is not recyclable so it is really destined to landfill or incineration.
Fast forward a couple of weeks.
Last weekend, I went for a walk down to the strand again and I forgot to bring a bag to carry some of the rubbish. I wanted to start this new habit but as always with new habits they take a while to consolidate.
I saw this dead bird on the beach, half eaten. I instantly had the thought that nature recycles everything. There is no waste.
I kept on walking and I saw pieces of rubbish, brought by the sea, most of it plastic.
The problem with recycling plastic
Plastic is the big problem. It has nowhere to go, it doesn’t biodegrade. It stays put, slowly breaking down into smaller pieces, a process called photo-degrading.
The current solution to this problem is recycling. Recycling is the panacea proposed in the 1980s by the plastic industry. The same industry that created the problem proposed the solution. Isn’t there a slight conflict of interests? I would see this as an attempt to not really change but to fool the population into believing it works with half cooked measures rather than making real change such as stop producing plastic.
Change seems to be driven by consumer awareness, not by corporations and government institutions.
If there is no demand for plastic it will stop being produced. Click To Tweet
Current myths about plastic
Myth number 1: plastic is widely recycled.
Only two types of plastic are currently recycled. There are 7 types of plastic, categorised according to the materials used.
Myth number 2: we can turn plastic products into other plastic products.
Only out of two types of plastic we can make other things. The other day I saw Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new BBC series called War on Waste showing a woman who didn’t believe in recycling how we can turn that plastic bottle into a plastic chair or a jacket. Pretty new colourful objects. She was convinced to start recycling.
Incidentally, I thought the name of the program was interesting. Declaring war on waste is a sure way not to eliminate waste, only to make it bigger, by putting the focus on the problem rather than on the solution. How about something like: How to achieve a zero waste society or Solutions for a zero waste society.
“Yield to overcome” comes to mind, a phrase that I learned in my TaiChi classes.
What he didn’t say is what the life cycle of recycling plastic is. Can those plastic objects be recycled indefinitely or is there a limited number of times an object can be recycled?
They can only be recycled once. And then what? Landfill or incineration.
“Most plastics degrade during reprocessing and have only one successful recycling. Therefore, plastics from widely-collected products such as soft drink bottles and milk jugs often are downcycled into nonrecyclable items like fleece clothing and plastic lumber.” (source: homeguides.sfgate.com)
There is also the fact that plastic is a hormone disrupter so I wouldn’t be caught wearing a recycled plastic jacket even if proposed as the salvation to this world by the most famous celebrity on the planet.
Myth number 3: plastic is cheap.
Buying plastic products is cheap but when we add up production costs, environmental pollution, recycling, collection, disposal, clearing the sea from plastic, damage cause to species and humans… is it really that cheap?
How nature recycles
Going back to nature and the dead bird: Nature recycles everything because everything is made of the same ingredients. Everything on Earth and the Universe at large is made of 92 chemical elements arranged in different ways. A mind-blowing fact is that we are made of stardust:
“Every mountain, every rock on this planet, every living thing, every piece of you and me was forged in the furnaces of space … Every atom in our bodies was formed not on Earth, but was created in the depths of space, through the epic lifecycle of the stars“ Brian Cox in Wonders of the Universe, Stardust, episode 2.
Every atom in my body was once part of something else
Recycling at its best. It wouldn’t be to hard to look at how recycling happens in nature and imitate it. What would be the result? A zero waste society.
What are the ingredients of plastic?
The key in understanding why it doesn’t decompose is to understand what plastic is made of.
Plastics are man-made, synthetic polymers to which chemicals and other additives are added.
Synthetic is something that does not exist in Nature.
Plastic is artificial and non-natural. Therefore, it doesn’t degrade and doesn’t recycle; it also doesn’t agree with our bodies.
Why stop buying plastic
I can see the appeal of buying plastic. As somebody who loves colour, plastic usually comes in a range of attractive colours. Add to that a cheap price tag and you have the perfect product for the masses. Let’s face it, plastic is not really a high end design material. It has been designed to be produced in vast quantities, easily and for the masses. When you think of refined dining, plastic plates and glasses do not come to mind. You rather think of kids’s parties.
Consider this the next time you love something made out of plastic you simply must have:
- Plastic will never look as good as it does on the shelf of the department store.
- From the moment you buy it, plastic starts to look worse and deteriorate.
- Plastic contains chemicals. Plastic is toxic.
- Plastic is a hormone disrupter.
The world is your mirror
As within, so without.
The world is our mirror. The world is our reflection.
We may not know the full impact that plastic has in our bodies but just have a look around the next time you go out. Observe. Pay attention.
The same way plastic just hangs around in the landscape, sitting there, so too plastic hangs around in our bodies, nowhere to go.
Us and Nature are one and the same. We are Nature.