Plastic pollution is a world-wide problem and there is much in the news lately about the impact on marine life and birds from all the plastic that is entering the worlds waterways and oceans, be it from intentional dumping or accidental.
As Prainha is a coastal community the amount of plastic washing up on the beach here is impossible to ignore, as is the rubbish that is dumped out on the dunes by some of the local residents, who for some reason still think that this is ok to do, despite numerous efforts to educate and inform against this practise. Sometimes these very same people are amongst those complaining that “Someone” should do something about the rubbish, though they are sadly never amongst those who occasionally try to clear it up.
The problem of rubbish here is something I have been, in my own small way, trying to do something about ever since I moved here and in June of this year I began a project at the local school which has several aims wrapped up within it:
1: To reduce the amount of plastic being disposed of by the community.
2: To encourage the children, and through them their parents, to reduce the amount of plastic waste that is created in the first place.
3: To use waste plastic as a resource to construct something of benefit to the community.
4: To focus the children’s thinking on the impact both negative and positive that we all have on the world around us and how a small change in our behaviour can have a big impact if enough of us do it.
The project, Part 1.
One of the facts about plastic pollution that always shocks me is just how much of it we have created in a relatively short space of time. I am not that old (55) and it is only within my lifetime that plastic bags became generally available, yet now it is almost impossible to walk anywhere without seeing a plastic bag caught in the grass or in a tree, washed up on the beach or blowing down a street. It is estimated that between 8 and 14 million metric tons of plastic enters the worlds oceans every year, that is such a staggering figure, so large that it is meaningless to me.
I wanted to show the children that plastic is a relatively new material and find a way of making that 8 million figure meaningful. I created a slide show, which I can’t reproduce here because some of the photos I used were not my own but I can give you a condensed version of my words, giving a brief history of plastic and the effects that it is now having on the worlds oceans and wildlife.
Plastic; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
1855: Alexander Parkes invented what is generally considered the first plastic, a substance called Parkesine.
1863: Billiards had become a staggeringly popular game and the demand for ivory for the manufacturers of billiard balls was so high that manufacturers became concerned that the supply of ivory would soon run out. I can’t help feeling they were not acting from concern for the elephants but, so the story goes, they offered up a reward to anyone who could come up with a substitute substance to ivory.
1869: John Wesley Hyatt adapted Parkes experiments and by using various substances mixed with Nitric Acid and cotton, a highly inflammable and often explosive mix, he finally invented a substance that was named Celluloid.
I don’t know if Hyatt got the reward as it is said that the celluloid balls would give off a crack like a gun shot when ever two of them hit together, an American bar owner reported that this caused “every man in the place to pull out his gun”.
Celluloid had many other uses though, including as a replacement material for coral, tortoiseshell and ivory in the manufacture of combs, trinkets, jewelry and ornaments. Hyatt announced to the world that Celluloid had —
— “Given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”
Celluloid was also of course used for film and from there the movie industry was born.
Alternatives to Celluloid were developed, including Casein made from vinegar and milk, which was a very popular material for the manufacture of jewelry and other household objects.
1909 – Leo Baekeland announced he had invented Bakelite using a waste product from coal, thus opening the way for the development of other petroleum based plastics.
During World War ll petroleum based plastics were used extensively in military equipment and armaments and the different types of petroleum based plastics multiplied dramatically but at the end of the war, plastics manufacturers had to find a new outlet for their materials and they turned to household goods.
Plastic exploded into our daily lives during the 1950’s and 60’s. Plastic it seemed could be made into anything: Tupperware, furniture, squeeze bottles, brushes, dolls, cups, buckets, shoes, car parts and on and on. Today plastics are used in just about every aspect of our daily lives, sometimes in ways we are not even aware of, just look around you now, it’s everywhere.
Plastic can be extremely durable, or it can be disposable and that is where we come to the bad side of plastics.
Unfortunately plastic never really goes away. All of the petroleum-based plastic that has ever been created still exists in one form or another. Plastic degrades over time but it does not return to its original state, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and that’s where we come to the ugly side of plastic.
In 1997, roughly fifty years after petroleum-based plastics began to appear in our shops and only ten years after lightweight plastic bags came into general use, there was the discovery of what became known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” a giant gyre of plastic litter that has collected in the North Pacific Ocean. Since then at least 5 other garbage patches have been discovered.
SO you might ask, If there is all this rubbish floating about on the surface of the ocean, why doesn’t someone just go and scoop it all up?
Good question but the idea that there is this mass of plastic rubbish floating around is in some ways misleading. There is a lot of visible rubbish floating in these patches but the worst of it is often so small that the only way to collect it is with a specially fine filter and it is not just on the surface but all the way down the water column, more like a kind of giant plastic soup, that covers a simply mind-boggling area.
These gyres are simply HUGE! Just one of those in the Pacific is said to be the size of the of Texas!
Millions of birds, mammals and other sea life die ever year from eating or getting tangled in plastic. We can tell the difference between plastic and food but animals and fish can’t and when they eat plastic the plastic pieces stay in their stomachs and the creature dies of starvation.
Lets go back to the elephants at the beginning of this story. One elephant weighs about 1 metric ton, that’s about the same as 14 adults. So an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic rubbish goes into the sea every year! Can you imagine 8 million elephants marching into the sea! Nope I still can’t get my head round it. How about this figure, 250.kg of plastic goes into our oceans every second! Which ever way you look at it, that’s a lot of plastic that simply shouldn’t be there.
Remember what Hyatt said about having “Given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts”. As we all know elephants and other animals are still being hunted for their tusks and ironically, turtles are endangered in part by the very thing that Hyatt hoped would save them; to a turtle a plastic bag floating in the ocean looks just like a jelly fish, which is its favourite meal.
We can recycle some plastics, but not all and it is a complicated as there are so many different types of plastic that have to be sorted and recycled separately, making it a time-consuming and costly process.
Most plastic that gets recycled is down graded into something else, often this “something else” is polyester yarn which is then made into fabrics which are used for clothing and furnishings.
At first everyone thought that this was a fantastic use of the recycled material but unfortunately there is a very serious downside to fabrics made from these fibres. Every time we wash an item made from these fabrics, microscopic fibres come off and being so tiny they pass straight through any filters on washing machines or in sewage treatment plants.
Most of these fibres are ending up in the sea where they are eaten by the smallest of organisms at the base of the food chain. These organisms are eaten by small fish, which are eaten by bigger fish which may well end up on our plates. A recent study by Plymouth University, tested fish caught from waters all around the UK and destined for human consumption, 39% contained plastics.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. Scientists have known for many years that plastics can be made from many different materials including milk and plants, like corn and sugar cane. If certain bacteria are fed sugar, they can also create a type of plastic. We can even get plastic from chicken feathers and from a waste product from paper manufacturing and all these plastics are bio degradable.
But there are other very simple things we can do and the most important of all is to stop creating so much rubbish in the first place.
This was the end of the slide show and many of the children told me how shocked they were by the images of dead and dying sea life. Turtles, dolphins, whales, seals, sharks and birds entangled in plastic fishing gear, bags and other rubbish. Birds that had mistaken plastic for fish and had been feeding it to their young, inadvertently killing them of starvation. A whale that was found to have over 100 plastic bags in it stomach and had also died of starvation. These dolphins that I found on our beach here,
Of course living in a community where the main source of income is from fishing, no one liked the idea that the fish they eat on a daily basis were likely to be contaminated with plastics.
We spoke briefly about some of the things we could do to reduce our use of plastic. I know that cutting out the odd plastic bag here and there is not going to make enough of a difference but we have to start somewhere and becoming aware of the problem, is to my mind, the first step to solving it.
Here in Brazil you have to be very insistent to leave a shop without a plastic bag. Our local shop keeper is used to me saying no and, I’m pleased to say, now even checks himself as his hand reaches automatically for his stack of bags but, he jokes that I am the only one of his customers who never wants a bag. He told me that after the slide show at the school his daughter had come home and told him they had to stop giving out bags in the shop as she had been deeply concerned by what she had seen, which pleased me enormously. To give him his due, he has in the past tried to cut down on plastic bags, launching an initiative to encourage people to use canvas shopping bags but few joined in and he was even accused him of trying to rob people, as they said it was their right to be given a free plastic bag, even for a single small item.
The next phase of the project is a step towards how we here in this small community can stop some of the plastic waste getting into the environment. In my next post I will show the first stage of our plastic bottle project, how we are filling plastic bottles with plastic rubbish to make plastic bricks*, which we will use to create something for the benefit of all who use the school and maybe, if we can get enough people involved, take it out into the wider community.
If you haven’t already seen it, I urge you to watch a film called “Plastic Ocean” (available on Netflix or to purchase on DVD) It will tell you a great deal about the problem our seas, and consequently all marine and bird life are facing and of course if it affects them, it will also affect us. Please watch it.
*I don’t claim any credit for the plastic bottle brick idea, it is one I found on the internet where some generous souls have shared their experiences and know how, I’ll put up links with the next post.