The Planet Is Our Home

It surrounds us, it is in every place we go, on the street, on the beach or the woods. We see it when we climb a mountain or go for a swim. It is there, evidence of our wilful neglect or ingenious inventiveness. It is our own man-made friend and already a destructive enemy. It is causing permanent and irreversible harm to us and also to the creatures of the planet. Yes, you guessed it, it is plastic.

Every time I open a plastic-wrapped package of food or a product, I feel a twinge of guilt, sadness and frustration. I know it is a strong, reliable, protective man-made material that is very valuable in it’s many uses for mankind. It is used in every conceivable way from wrapping our sandwiches to the plastic chairs in which we sit. But how can I recycle and dispose of it in a safe harmless way?

A recent report in the London based ‘The Independent’ newspaper said that there are as many as eight million tons of plastic waste dumped into the oceans every year. There are, the report says, 51 trillion plastic micro particles – 500 times more than the stars in our galaxy spread all over the planet.

In the Arctic alone, that beautiful once pristine remote Ocean, researchers have detected 300 billion bits of floating plastic micro-particles, which the fish are eating as a consequence. Out of all the plastic produced in the past 80 years, 79 percent is dumped in landfills, burnt or finds its way into the environment and the oceans and only 9 percent of it is recycled, the report says.

Earth Day is approaching, on the 22nd April 22, and we have to focus on what this low-cost, useful yet pernicious material is doing to our environment. It is so beneficial and yet so destructive. We have to change our ways and invent a plant-based biodegradable form of plastic.

We are so dependent on fossil oil-based plastic that some estimates say we humans have manufactured as much a 8.3 billion metric tons of it since 1950 or thereabouts. According to a report by Ocean Conservatory, Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines are among the worst polluters. The Pasig River in Manila is one of the worst. Up to 60 percent of the plastic junk in the world comes from these Asian countries.

The durability of plastic is what gives it such appeal to manufacturers but that it’s weakness too. Fossil fuel-based plastic is not biodegradable, it will not rot away like wood or breakdown for hundreds of years and even then, it will remain a toxic substance poisoning the planet.

It does slowly disintegrate into micro-plastic particles and these become dust and cling to plants, float in the air and are carried into the rivers and oceans. They attract other chemicals, pesticides, and residues that cling to the plastic particles and create an unseen dangerous toxic brew of poison. The three witches around their cauldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth could ever imagine such a toxic brew. Yes we are brewing trouble, “Double, double toil and trouble.” This might be a cause of different cancers.

We are breathing these unseen and undetectable particles that can stick in our lungs and nostrils causing conditions that can’t be properly diagnosed. The planet or its inhabitants have not yet evolved to survive the onslaught of our own plastic poisoning. Plastic is derived from oil. The animals and our children’s children will be ingesting it for centuries to come if we don’t do something serious now to stop the pollution that is destroying creatures of our natural habitat and environment. We are stuck with it forever, it seems.

So if we live in a city environment which most of us do, or in an industrial area, we have the smog or fumes from burning coal and oil and diesel to contend with. The plastic micro-particles tend to cling to them according to new research by professor Frank Kelly, from London’s Kings College, who is a renowned researcher on the environmental hazards dangerous to our health.

There is, too, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and “The Eastern Garbage Patch”. These are huge swats of the oceans in the North Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean where plastic debris has accumulated into islands some as big as France due to the action of the ocean currents.

Fish absorb the micro particles. Turtles swallow plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish and most fish eat plankton, but mistake the plastic micro particles for food. We eat a lot of fish, which is considered healthier than eating meat. We should all be vegetarians to save the planet.

That’s not possible nowadays because we consumed as much as 92.6 millions tonnes of fish in 2015 alone, according to a UN report. Many tonnes of fish are discarded and thrown back dead into the sea as not being commercially valuable in the western world. What a shocking waste. It also means that those of us that do eat fish will be ingesting more plastic than ever before. Soon, we will be carrying the plastic particles that will disrupt our hormones and inner organs. We have not yet evolved as plastic-resistant creatures.

Some towns and cities are banning the use of plastic bags. There is a new CleanSeas campaign announced by the United Nations to clean the oceans of plastic debris. Let us give a good example by recycling our plastic at home, clean the environment of plastic and encourage our nations to join the campaign.

– Fr. Shay Cullen