Opinionista Elaine Mills 25 April 2019

Plastic pollution is monstrous – and humans are the monsters

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats facing our planet, and single-use plastic is the worst culprit in the toxic soup it produces. It’s time for political parties in South Africa to step up and make combating plastic pollution an active plank in their political platforms.

At first, they thought it was a worm that had lodged in the sea turtle’s brain via its nostril. As the biologists tried to pull it free with pliers, the turtle squirmed with pain and blood started to flow.

It was intolerable to watch, but I just had to. When they finally managed to dislodge it, the relief was indescribable. Like the turtle, we could all breathe freely again.

And what did they find? A bloody plastic straw.

We’ve all seen footage of thousands of birds found dead in remote places with bits of plastic in their innards. People are rightly reacting with outrage and horror to images of birds feeding their young plastic, and whales washed ashore with stomachs full of rubbish bags.

The impact that our plastic pollution is having on our planet is truly monstrous, and we are the monsters.

Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic enters our oceans. Just think about it – and even before you’ve finished that thought, another truckload has been dumped. By 2050, there will be more plastic by weight in the sea than fish.

Plastic waste isn’t just an eyesore – it is deadly. Marine litter kills one million seabirds, around 100,000 marine mammals and countless fish every year.

Cattle, sheep and goats are also dying from ingesting plastic. Half of camel deaths in the United Arab Emirates are caused by suffocation from plastic bags.

Meanwhile, plastic has entered our food chain – and the impact on human health is still unclear. Nearly all salt brands globally were found to contain microplastic. Scientists have also found plastic in most bottled water, and even beer.

Don’t get me wrong: not all plastic is bad. It helps to curb global warming by improving insulation, creating lighter packaging and vehicles, preserving food and safeguarding hygiene.

The problem is our rampant over-use of throwaway plastic. South Africans use eight billion shopping bags per year. On average, each bag is used for only 15 minutes – but can take up to 500 years to decompose.

The current rate of recycling is not enough to solve the problem. South Africa recycles less than 16% of its plastic – the rest ends up in the ocean or landfill, from where it leaches toxins into the environment. As for single-use plastic, that is per definition not intended to be recycled.

Unless we change our wasteful lifestyles, the next generation will inherit the consequences of our apathy – and they will curse us for it. The worst is that most of this is avoidable, if only we could be bothered to carry our own shopping bag.

Earlier in April, Tanzania joined the ranks of nearly 30 African countries – including Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco and Cameroon – that have banned disposable plastic bags. By comparison, South Africa lags far behind.

But our Parliament discussed a possible ban of certain single-use plastic items as recently as February. So, here too, the tide seems finally to be turning.

At a Two Oceans Aquarium summit in March, Marcus Eriksen from the 5 Gyres Insitute said that the ocean’s equilibrium can be restored, if only we could cut plastic input into the oceans by 20% per year over the next seven years. Now surely that is achievable!

Looking beyond the May elections, we want the next South African government to join growing worldwide action to halt the damage caused by plastic. And so, as the Greenpeace volunteers of Cape Town, we have launched a petition calling for single-use plastic carrier bags, small fruit and vegetable bags, straws, stirrers, cutlery and earbuds to be banned.

It seems we are not alone – people have signed our petition at a rate of around 1,000 per week and we now have more than 10,000 signatures.

A different world and a better future is possible – and you can contribute to it. Refuse plastic carrier bags – instead, bringing your own reusable ones. Avoiding – or at least reduce – the unnecessary use of single-use plastic items, and re-use wherever you can.

Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. It is time to turn the tide on single-use plastic and reverse the destructive path that we’re on. Join the revolution and be part of the solution – for the sake of our children and their children to come. DM

This article was updated at 3.50pm on April 25, 2019.

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