Plastic, Plastic Everywhere – It’s time to stop and think!

In the 18th Century the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: 
“Water, water everywhere
and not a drop to drink.”
In the 21st Century it’s changed to:
“Plastic, Plastic Everywhere
It’s time to stop and think!”

Care For Our Common Home

by Gerry Forde, SMA Justice Officer

When Pope Francis published his Encyclical Letter, “Laudato Si’ – on care for our common home” many people were surprised to read his words:

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like
an immense pile of filth.” (LS 21).

In these strong but true words, he refers to the misuse, over use and waste of our world’s resources and also to the damage that this is causing to our environment and to the health of all life on the planet. Pope Francis also wrote:

“The earth now cries out to us
because of the harm we have inflicted on her
by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods
with which God has endowed her.” (LS 2).

There are many sources of pollution in our world but one – Plastic – is present in practically every place and in the life of almost every human being. In terms of man-made materials, no other exceeds plastic in the amount that is produced. We all use it and we need to be more careful.

It is true that some plastic products are essential in our day-to-day lives. However, others, such as single-use or disposable plastic products, are not essential and they are causing great damage. Plastic is cheap and versatile, it has allowed us to develop a disposable lifestyle or what Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’ refers to as, “a throwaway culture.”

More plastic has been produced in the 19 years of the 21st Century, than in the entire 20th Century. Three hundred million tons of plastic is produced every year. Half of this enormous amount is used just once as wrapping, drinks bottles, carrier bags etc. and is then thrown away. Only 10% is recycled.

Illegal dumping. Even when collected, it never goes away. Photo: (c) Don Mullan

Unlike other materials such as wood and paper, plastic does not biodegrade. We can throw it out in our bins, or illegally dump it along the side of the road, but it never goes away. Instead, over time, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. It takes between 10 and 20 years for a plastic bag to breakdown. Plastic waste ends up in landfill sites and, over the last few years, we have become increasingly aware that accumulated waste is clogging our oceans and seriously damaging marine life and habitats.

When this plastic breaks down into small-particles it is ingested by marine life entering the food chain and potentially ending up on our plate. Millions of marine animals and birds die from ingesting and choking on plastic. Recently, scientists from University College Galway found plastic in fish taken from 600 meters deep in the Atlantic Ocean. On land, plastic waste deposits harmful chemicals into our soil and groundwater causing death and illness to humans and wildlife.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis also says:

“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all
who need to change” (LS 201).

One area we need to change is in how we use plastic. This is an urgent task and a way of caring for the health of our world, its environment, flora, fauna and also its human life.

Plastic is now an unavoidable part of our everyday life. How we use it matters. Clearly it is time to end our overuse of plastic in order to protect our world. This is important as a way of showing consideration for our environment, our neighbours and for future generations. It is also as Pope Francis tells us, a way of living our faith:

“Christians in their turn realize that their responsibility within creation,
and their duty towards nature and the Creator,
are an essential part of their faith.” (LS 64). 

PLASTIC WASTE – Some Facts

Illegal Dumping. Photo: (c) Don Mullan

In 2002 Ireland made history by becoming the first country in the world to introduce a plastic bag levy that reduced the use of plastic carrier bags by over 90 percent. Since then, the positive impact of this innovation has been wiped-out by our growing use of plastic packaging and bottles.

A survey in an Irish supermarket showed that 121 out of 139 fruit and vegetable items on sale were packaged in plastic. Most were wrapped in single-use, non-recyclable plastic.

Ireland, according to recent Eurostat figures, is now the top producer of plastic waste in the European Union.

We produce 134 pounds or 61 kilos of plastic waste per person every year. How did we get to this since we made such positive history back in 2002? Plastic in some form or other has been around for more than 100 years and the mass production of plastic goods began after World War ll. However, it was in the 1960’s that technological advances allowed oil-based plastic to be produced cheaply enough for use in things such as disposable milk bottles. Since then there has been a steady growth in plastic production, but it is since the beginning of this century that the use of plastic has exploded world-wide. The figures here show that Ireland has not lagged behind.

Recently, scientists have begun to understand the full extent of plastic pollution and for the first time calculated the total amount produced. They are shocked by the results. 8.3 billion tons has been made and a staggering 6 billion tons of this has been dumped as rubbish. Scientists tell us that 80% of this waste is in landfill and the rest in the oceans or the environment. If we continue like this there will be 12 billion tons in landfills by 2050 and the plastic waste in our oceans will weigh more than all the fish it contains!

Scientists, like those from Galway University, are beginning to see the problem of plastic pollution as one that is much more serious than previously thought and they are even comparing it to climate change. Adding to their concerns is the fact that the rate of plastic production is increasing each year and that more than half of what is produced is for single use only.

The everyday convenience of plastic – wrapping, bottles, cutlery, cleanly wrapped vegetables and take-away food, things that we all have become used to, come at a cost. We now understand that this cost is much too high. Dealing with the problem of plastic pollution will take a global approach, it must involve governments and producers but, it must also involve us, our families and our individual lifestyle choices.

Cloverhill Prison Car Park, Dublin. “Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere…” Photo: (c) Don Mullan

Plastic, plastic everywhere – its time not only to think – its time to Stop.

THINGS TO DO

1. Use reusable Bottles: Worldwide over 480 billion plastic bottles were sold in 2016, roughly 20,000 every second. Stop buying them.

2. Stop using Plastic Straws: Hundreds of millions are thrown away every day!!

3. Use reusable Shopping Bags: Most of us do in Ireland but we can still do better. Ask for paper bags if a plastic one is offered.

4. Boycott Micro-beads: Found in some products, e.g. facial scrubs, toothpastes, body washes. One product can have up to 300,000 plastic micro-beads. Opt for products with natural exfoliants, like oatmeal or salt, instead. Micro-beads are a major ocean pollutant.

5. Avoid Plastic Packaging: Buy loose fruit and vegetables.

6. Don’t use Disposable Razors: Billions of them are discarded every year.

7. Give up Chewing Gum: It’s made of synthetic rubber, which is plastic. Worldwide, over 100,000 tons are discarded annually.

8. Cook More: Not only is it healthier, it also avoids use of throw-away containers and plastic cutlery.

9. Buy a Keep Cup: At present in Ireland, 99% of the disposable cups used by Coffee Shops are not recyclable. Globally one million of these cups end up being dumped every minute. Buy a reusable cup.

10. Recycle properly: Take the time and trouble to get to know, clean and separate plastics that can be recycled.