Thursday, 4 August 2016
by Sadhbh Quinn
A single use plastic bag can take up to 1000 years to break down into micro-plastics – in its
lifetime it can be ingested by, and result in the premature deaths of up to 100 dolphins
and sea turtles – and this lethal material, no matter how pulverized it becomes by the
oceans, is never truly gone! Even after it’s eventual, glacial-paced degradation to
microscopic smithereens, it is still causing detrimental and toxifying effects to the micro-
ecosystem – the basis for all life in the oceans.
It was this, among other shocking facts and statistics coming to light through the
increasing levels of scientific study into the serious dangers posed by plastic contamination
that prompted myself and my colleagues and team mates at Sea Synergy Marine
Awareness Centre in Waterville to attempt the challenge of a month completely FREE of
plastics! Here is an excerpt of the peaks and troughs I experienced on the journey…
Okay, it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was incredibly challenging. But for the opening of my eyes to
this new and sobering reality, it was so worth it, as the tough things often are.
Living in a rural town where there is one small supermarket (not good when you have no
car!) eliminating all plastic dependency seemed to present us with a pretty momentous
challenge. The idea of keeping a balanced diet seemed next to impossible. At first, we
struggled to imagine how we would cope for an entire month on only the few loose fruits
and veggies to be found in the local shop (avocados, bananas and some poorly-
looking tomatoes being the only ones that were not wrapped needlessly in plastic
packaging), fresh baked bread and whatever else may be found in cans, jars and the freezer
sections’ array of cardboard boxes.
The basics were out; cartons of milk, sliced bread, bin bags… bottled water? Not a chance.
The fact that I eat a vegetarian diet only funnelled my own options further toward the
processed foods section. Often, after being delighted to find an innocent looking box of
biscuits on the health shelf, I would later be devastated to find the delicious inner contents
individually coated in heavy plastic. Our reactions to these kind of setbacks was equal parts
frustration, bafflement and grief.
Why? Just, why?
The pointlessness all of it was what really struck me. Why would they bother? Surely, its
extra effort, extra money for the company, if nothing else. In most cases, the plastic is doing
little or nothing to actually preserve the food inside. Certainly nothing that other more
sustainable materials couldn’t do equally well. Some might argue it’s a ‘hygiene’ thing. But
on digging a little deeper we find it’s less a hygiene thing and more a psychological thing for
the consumer. Which makes it a marketing thing for the company. Which makes it a money
thing for the economy.
For the producer under demand, it makes sense. Spend a little more on individually plastic-
wrapped biscuits and make the product look better, make it seem of a higher calibre of
biscuit. The biscuit for the person who has everything. The company’s investment is
returned with a higher price tag. And the consumer is rewarded with a lighter pocket and a
quietly dying environment as the backdrop to a generation.
It’s only now, after this experience, that the hardship of finding food items has become truly
apparent, or any products for that matter, that are not in some way wrapped, protected,
lined, adorned, decorated with or made of plastic. It is an absolute mission. It requires
creativity, ingenuity, organisation and forward-thinking just to get your weekly shopping.
Never mind the industriousness it would take to run your business plastic-free. But it
doesn’t need to be that way.
Its pure madness, to a level that I feel I was so institutionalized to as the ‘norm’ that I never
even realised this madness was in me too. Now, I think back to days sitting on the wall of
Dun Laoghaire’s West Pier, watching the shipping traffic of massive cargo ships endlessly
stream in and out of Dublin port, their brightly coloured metal containers so serenely out of
place under the familiar blanket of grey cloud and the pale, Irish sun. What were they all
Consumer goods from all over the world.
Your fruit, vegetables, chocolate, coffee, spices, condiments, gardening equipment, buggies,
toys, printer ink, stationary, clothes, arts and crafts. Everything a carrier for the plague of
plastics that eventually end up in our landfills, rubbish tips, incinerators, and the vast
majority, in our oceans. Make no mistake, it is a disease. One that is killing our oceans and
thus, the majority of life on earth. And lest we forget, the oceans are also the lifeblood that
supports us. Humanity is intimately connected with, and dependent on, the sea for survival.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch for instance. How is that a thing? It sounds like a
sightseeing destination, a place of interest. The Great Barrier Reef or the Grand Canyon. But
no, it is not a landmark, but a blight, a fetid wound on our planets already bruised flank. Its
area is estimated anywhere from 700,000 square km to 15 million square km of rubbish.
This astounding surface area is due to micro-plastics (plastic materials pumped into the
oceans that have been smashed into toxic microscopic smithereens but still remain present
and detectable by sampling) which make up a HUGE proportion of the GPGP mass. Micro-
plastics are readily ingested by many forms of marine life from the largest of all, the baleen
whales, to the smallest of all, microscopic creatures called plankton. As plankton are the
number one basic food group feeding all life in the ocean, their contamination pollutes the
entire oceanic food web. It’s the equivalent of all terrestrial plant-life (think crops)
simultaneously being infected by a toxic virus.
After the initial pain we felt, our experience started to slowly plateau and suddenly, to
improve. We got creative. We ordered fresh produce from the local farm, our ‘green boxes’
turned up with a fabulous array of lettuce, spinach leaves, rocket, leek, carrots, onion,
chives, beetroot, cabbage, new potatoes and fresh herbs, parsley, bay leaves, lemon balm,
mint, coriander, rosemary. The list went on. And the best bit? It was all fresh picked,
organic, local and tasted amazing. And because our supplier was a friend and neighbour we
needed only share the goal of our Plastic-Free Journey in order to have everything boxed in
wood, cardboard and paper. No plastic in sight. Fantastic! This is the way it should be. Local,
sustainable trade supporting the community and protecting our environment all at once.
Now we were helping the environment in a new way. By buying our greens locally we were
completely circumnavigating the crazy fuel requirements it takes for our fruit and veg to be
shipped from the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, North Africa, Israel. Our oceans were
being spared another unnecessary body blow.
Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing. We all had a few weak moments, lapses, break-downs.
But it can be easier. Demand for plastic-free goods in great numbers will produce a
response. Action equals reaction. It’s a physical law, an inevitability. We may imagine it is
the producer that controls the options of the consumer, but it is in fact consumers that
dictate demand on the producer. It’s not a chicken-egg scenario, we have the power. We
are the majority and we need to band together in order to make our voices heard, our votes
count and buy and boycott our way to a cleaner, safer environment for ourselves and to
secure a future we can be proud of.
Let’s not become the wasted generation.