Plastic bottles are everywhere. That’s right! Everywhere you go, you see them. They are cheap. You don’t have to pay anything to get one with your drink and you don’t need a replacement to carry one home. They have made our lives convenient, why lie. There was a time when to buy a bottle of soda you had to go to the shop with a replacement bottle or be prepared to pay extra (deposit).
Well, plastic happened and those days are now well tucked away in distant memory. The millennials may not even be aware that we once lived through that era.
Plastic, especially the single use variety, revolutionised the packaging industry. Most importantly, it turned our shopping experience on its head. The convenience of plastic, however, came with a price. A steep one, I must add. That is a bit of an oxymoron, quite evidently. How can something so cheap come with a steep price? Here is why.
Plastic, as you may have observed, clogs street drains. This is a very common sight in Nairobi and other towns across Kenya. Sometimes we wonder how so many plastic bottles got into storm drainage. Besides being unsightly, they cause flooding during the rainy season. Floods destroy roads and people’s livelihoods. They sweep away houses, cars, trees, animals and people. They generally complicate life in urban neighbourhoods, making it difficult for people to get to their jobs or access their homes.
Plastics doesn't just disappear from the drainage systems. They find their way to rivers and eventually to swamps, lakes and oceans.
Mountains of plastic debris have been found deep in the world’s oceans. As usual, we wonder how they got there. But that’s not all. Plastic trash is found in the gut of sea birds, turtles, whales and other marine life, which they confuse for food.
Some crabs die slow, painful death when they are trapped by plastic trash and they just can’t free themselves. Some estimates indicate that by 2050, there will be more plastic trash in the world’s oceans than there are fish.
Plastic don’t biodegrade. They remain in the soil or in water for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. They release toxins into the environment, continuing to hurt life systems long after they became useless. Plastics are essentially immortal. To make matters worse, not all plastics can be recycled and even those which can are hardly recycled.
Rarely talked about is the fact that the process of excavating the raw materials used to make plastic has its own consequences including destabilising the earth and making affected regions susceptible to earthquakes.
Now I got to ask, is it prudent to use raw materials for just a single-use purpose as we do with certain classes of plastic and in the quantities that we do? I think not. Nature is not elastic and plastic affects our surroundings directly, often in a negative way.
If you are here thinking that we need to stop disposing plastics in the environment (landfills included) purely for the sake of nature, you need to rethink. It is common knowledge that humans are not outside nature. We are nature as well. We are doing this for us. Anything we do, make, eat or enjoy depends on nature.
Every resource ultimately comes from nature. Eating fish full of plastic, drinking water containing micro beads of plastic and destroying habitats for other life are not without consequences on our health. And that should be reason enough to rethink and change. If we feel entitled to enjoy the benefits of plastics, we should feel responsible for the negative impact caused by misusing, abusing or disposing it.
Quite obviously, plastics are not inherently bad. Our lives revolve around them. Our toothbrushes are made of plastic. Some of the medicines prescribed by doctors are packaged in plastic. The food industry relies heavily on plastic for packaging. Fundamentally, there is ongoing work by a few organisations to make plastics less harmful to the environment. In the meantime, there are a few things we can do as individuals to protect the environment, and therefore save ourselves, from the devastating effects of plastic trash.
The first is to minimise use of plastic. When going on safari, for instance, you can choose to carry along your usual cutlery, utensils and glasses. It doesn’t hurt to do so. You can also carry drinking water in jerry cans in place of PET bottles. That way, you avoid disposable plastic utensils and cutlery which will end up as trash after use.
Second, should you have items packaged in single use plastic such as PET bottles, don’t throw them out of the car window once used. Ouch! It hurts. Don’t do it. Train your children not to do it. Keep the trash in the car till you get to a place where you can safely dispose of them.
Third, find out safe ways to dispose of plastic trash in your neighbourhood. There are a few organisations that are in the business of recycling plastic trash. It would be great to form partnerships with the collectors as a community or estate. The alternative is to return the plastic trash to the supermarket from which you purchased the products. They can liaise with the recyclers who can pick them from a central point.
Fourth, please carry your own kiondo(s) when going to the grocery or the supermarket. Plastic carrier bags may be banned, but we have no guarantee that the alternatives available in the market are safe for the environment. There is no evidence they are better thus far.
Finally, start an anti-single use plastic trashing in your community. Let everyone in the community beware of the dangers of disposing plastic trash in the environment. You may go a step further and agree on a collection point from where recycling companies can pick them.
And hey, before I go, have you considered going on a plastic diet? You should. Plastic diet involves scanning your daily interaction with plastic, eliminating what you can and committing to a plastic-free diet.
Ms Boomsma is director, Sustainable Inclusive Business. [email protected]