On Plastic Pollution (again)

It’s so freakin’ hot! Yep, climate change is real. In case you’ve forgotten, increasing temperatures is one impacts of the changing climate. If only we had more trees which can have a cooling effect in cities. But no, these are obstructions to wider roads and malls and buildings you want to put up. With this heat, it would have been nice to take a dip in a pool or go to the beach. Nicki Minaj’s “Let’s go to the beach, each, let’s go get a wave…” is inviting. That, unfortunately, could not happen anytime soon.

May is the “Month of the Ocean.” But with this COVID-19 crisis, I can’t help but wonder how we are to deal with all the plastic from PPE to food packaging, and relief goods placed in plastic bags which sadly could end up in our oceans.

The campaign against single-use plastic has been gaining momentum in the past years but with the current situation, it seems like we have to deal yet again with the issue of plastic pollution.

I would not discount the fact that plastic is useful, convenient, and cheap. But impacts to health and the environment are as always not captured in the price. Who pays for the real price? Oceans choking in plastic, wildlife dying, and possible health impacts due to toxicity (though more studies have yet to be done on this).

So where does that leave us? Well, at least for me, I do my best to avoid single-use or unnecessary plastic (plastic PPE is acceptable, I suppose, but I hope better alternatives can be created soon). Sometimes, it irks me when I say, “No plastic, please” or “No need for the paper bag,” and out of habit, they’d just do the opposite. I force a smile and take a deep breath. There is still a lot of raising awareness that has to be done (plus, let’s not forget government and corporate action!).

No, you’re not saving the environment when you keep on buying the reusable bags in the supermarket which you forget to bring the next time you go shopping.

A common question, “Is paper any better, it has a huge carbon footprint?” That’s true but it’s not as toxic and as persistent in the environment so maybe it’s a lesser evil? Re-usables is still the best bet.

But hey, I also recognize that options at the moment are limited. The important thing is we try to do what we can to reduce plastic use so that the next time we go to the beach, it won’t be plastic we would be swimming with.

War on Plastic

Summer is almost over but in a country where we have really nice beaches, it might as well be summer all year round. But our oceans are now choking in plastic. Heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s an accumulation of ocean plastic and garbage, which to date, is three times the size of France, and it’s getting bigger!

Why don’t we just clean it up? Not as easy as it sounds. There’s the issue of cost, distance, and effects of photodegradation (sunlight reducing plastic to smaller bits making them even more difficult to clean up).

Plastic is deemed evil for a reason (i.e. toxicity, pollution, etc.) but its usefulness in terms of food safety and food preservation is undeniable. A Quartz article explains that “Plastic is the symptom. Our centralized food system is the disease.” And a systemic issue will take time to be resolved.

One thing we can already do, however, is to start getting rid of unnecessary plastic. The good thing is more and more people are becoming aware of this. A lot of efforts are now being done to tackle the challenge.

There’s the ban of single-use plastic in some cities and municipalities, even among corporations. People are refusing straws and are opting for better alternatives – paper straws, bamboo straws, metal straws, and glass straws. There’s even a collapsible and seaweed-based edible straw. Speaking of edible, an alternative plastic bag made from cassava can be eaten or is compostable (as opposed to the oxo-degradable bags which just break down into micro plastics).

A growing group of individuals are starting to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle bringing re-usable bags, and jars, and containers when they go shopping; and re-filling their re-usable water drinking bottles instead of buying bottled water.

We have all these better options and it’s such a simple decision to make. It’s a matter of saying yes to the simple solution with big impact and letting go of the attraction of convenience.

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Halo-halo in the mountains with a re-usable container.

No Straw! No Straw!

It’s silly but I actually dreamt about this. I requested that my drink be served without a straw. My drink arrived with a freakin’ plastic straw! I wake up and the same thing happens in my waking world. Geez, just remove the straw then, what’s the big deal? Well, we’re unnecessarily creating waste which could have been avoided at the very beginning. It’s recycled anyway? Only 10% of plastic produced globally is recyled. Most of it is trashed and ends up in the ocean forming the Great Pacific garbage patch, a collection of marine debris mostly plastic. We create biodegradable plastics but they don’t readily decompose and some become tiny bits also known as microplastics.

January is the Zero Waste Month in the Philippines and I wish we could channel even a little of Lauren Singer’s effort in striving for a zero waste lifestyle. Or maybe we should start segregating our wastes into 34 categories like the town of Kamikatsu in Japan. But really, segregating wastes into biodegradable and non-biodegradable could already make a difference.  Garbage dumped in landfills can significantly be reduced if the biodegradables are composted.

We used to have just one garbage bin in the office. I felt bad whenever I see the garbage all mixed up. After work, when I leave the building, I see these piles of garbage bags and these men sorting through the waste, probably looking for recyclables they could salvage and sell. Again, segregating wastes into biodegradable and non-biodegradable would make life easier for them. So that’s what I proposed and I’m glad people in the office obliged. I didn’t want to impose too much.

Waste segregation is very basic but you would be surprised how it can get complicated. We don’t exactly have a proper system for waste management. We have the policy in place but lack the political will to fully implement it. And there are much more important things to think about. Heck, environmental issues should be prioritized and addressed but that’s just me.

In a developing country like the Philippines, where poverty is still pretty much part of life, how can you ask people to avoid single use sachet contributing to plastic pollution when that’s what they can afford. Same with patronizing organic food or sustainable and environment-friendly products, which are relatively more expensive. My friends and I were talking about this one time, relating it to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If people can barely satisfy their basic needs, you can’t expect them to care for the plight of the environment. On the other hand, why do smart, caring people ignore environmental issues? Why can’t those who can take action?

At the beginning of this year, I wrote “Note to Self” to remind myself to breathe and let go. But as an environmentalist, sometimes I can’t help feeling frustrated. The more you know, the more you care, the more you suffer. You’re labeled anti-development. Or they think you’re just exaggerating or over reacting. Add to that the fact that environmental defenders are being killed! Why did I decide to be an environmentalist, haha!

Because as Helen Keller puts it, “I am only one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” I guess, that’s one thing I can do. Raise awareness through my writing, through the environmental initiatives I participate in, through my lifestyle.

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Photo by Jason Quema

It’s funny how my friends remark, “Ryan will get angry” when I see them using single-use plastic. At least they’re more aware, I suppose. And maybe one of these days, they would also say, “No straw, please.”

A Plastic Tale

I’m cheap, easy to manufacture, and you could mold me into any form you wish. You can use me once and throw me away and forget about me altogether. That, unfortunately, is not the end of my story. Because apparently, I can outlast your life and be here forever.

Sometimes, I get recycled but mostly I’m buried or dumped or kept somewhere away from your sight. Other times, you burn me and I give my last breath of life through toxic fumes. Or I let the wind carry me up in the air or I just float endlessly into the sea.

Life in the ocean can never be lonely. I’m reunited with all my kind at the North Pacific Gyre where we form a garbage patch. And thanks to the biggest plastic polluters, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, we could soon conquer the ocean.

I feel guilty, though, as I cause the death of countless animals when they mistake me for food or when they get entangled in my deadly embrace. And ever pervasive, I can break down into micro plastics ending up in your plate of fish.

I know it’s more convenient to use plastic bags instead of reusable ones. Or to buy bottled water instead of carrying a refillable bottle. Or choose disposables instead of washing up. Or drink through a straw instead of simply sipping one’s drink. But there’s already too much of us that maybe it’s about time that you reduce your plastic consumption.

Hey, I won’t take it against you. It’s the least I could do considering that May is the Month of the Ocean. And if it’s not too much, maybe you can even sign the petition calling for ASEAN to unite and act to protect the oceans from plastic and marine debris.

Every single piece of me ever made still exists today. However, I’ve stayed long enough and I’m ready to move on.

Greenpeace whale installation