Plastic crisis adds to pandemic crisis, and vice versa

Updated: May 24

The already existing plastic global crisis has been exacerbated by the global pandemic crisis. Just like the virus, plastic is everywhere. Single-use packaging; clothing containing plastic fibres that get shaded in the wash; fish deliciously prepared and savoured by some of us, contains plastic in their guts.

It goes round and round in circle. We create plastic. We use plastic. We generate plastic waste… and it comes back to us in our food.

A vicious circle. A plastic pollution epidemic.

The ‘breakthrough’ of plastic, when it was first invented in 1907 by Belgian-American Leo Baekeland, was its durability and high diversity of usage. This was the first fully synthetic plastic, also known as bakelite.

Through the XX century the mass production and use of plastic became widespread in the ‘50s and, in the span of seventy years, we are now talking in the nearly tens of billions of plastic to deal with, waste and recycle. Unmanageable figures.

Ironically, iron researches the history of plastic, one comes across statements indicating that humans started using plastics because plastics could protect the natural world from the destructing forces of human need.

The scarcity of natural resources at human disposal would have had huge social and economic constrains on people who could have been freed from them by the creation of new materials, such as plastic.

Plastic lasts forever - which seemed a fundamental benefit of its invention - yet 33% of it is used once and then discarded. Plastic is not biodegradable. It breaks down in smaller pieces to become smaller and smaller - the so called ‘micro-plastic’ that fish, marine mammals and sea birds eat.

Here is a fascinating, mind-boggling and disconcerting fact I read in an article on National Geographic published in June 2018. Things have deteriorated at fast pace since, nevertheless the fact reported is something that had been ‘naturally’ happening for years and it is likely to carry on until reaching the dead end road called extinction.

In a 2004 paper, Dr Richard Thompson Ph.D coined the term ‘micro-plastics’, referring to the minute pieces of plastic which get broken down by mainly sunlight and sea waves, and become waste. Dr Thompson discovered another factor responsible for micro-plastic in the sea - such as shrimp like crustaceans, which are common in European coasts. These tiny little sea inhabitants chew

though plastic at an incredible speed, gobbling it all up especially when plastic is coated with their favourite food: slime. Slime gets ingested and digested and the plastic bits get either spat out or defecated into the sea.

The article dates back to 2018. How many more micro-plastic ‘feasts’, ingestions and digestions have since occurred? Something has clearly gone terribly wrong. We - the creators, consumers and waste producers are not spared either by plastic or its harmful effects.

Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic. Our blood, tissues, immune system are exposed to such toxins causing cancers, birth defects immunity and endocrine problems. Something has gone terribly wrong here, too.

Yet, in the next decade fossil fuel industry - the oil giants - plan to increase plastic production by 40%. Fracked gas will be turned into plastic, polluting air to begin with, to end up in our oceans.

So, here is a question for our curious mind reader. Why?

If all the above is mostly known. If the so called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a known landmark on the worldwide map - where plastic debris deposits due to a swirly current system… Why is plastic carelessly dumped on coastlines, or in rivers - which then gets either blown by the wind, or run into seas and oceans by the rivers flow? Why there is not a fully developed and globalised consciousness about what is happening?

In economically developed countries, big industries are run by highly educated and trained people. At the same time, in some developing countries, general education and awareness of what plastic is and its destructive consequences if misused - lack. Papers and papers, governments promised programmes, targets, front pages, news, debates and discussions on

plastic, fill our daily lives. Yet, the planet is weight down by the billions of tons of plastic.

In the last year, human activity has slowed down, if not reduced, by the corona virus pandemic, which seem to have actually had an almost ironic beneficial effect on the ‘well-being’ of the planet. Pollution rates have been reported to have lowered by less carbon emission, factories temporarily closing down, and even an impact on wildlife conservation.

However, the monthly use of over a hundred of billions of disposable face masks and gloves due to the Covid-19 has alarmingly joint the squadron of plastic waste and pollution in our seas. Glove, like jellyfish lookalike, float in the sea being eaten by sea turtles. Masks get entangled with fish, sea animals and birds.

Everything that is single-use has been on the rise during Covid and most of single use items are made of plastic. Affordable non-recyclable plastic wrapped groceries, takeouts, single use plastic cutlery, have all been chosen over the more expensive environmentally friendly alternatives by the majority of the strapped for cash consumers.

The plastic monster has grown to an enormous size in 2020, adding tragedy to tragedy.

Recycling centres are collapsing in both developed and developing economies. Recycling programmes have been abandoned in some States due to the pandemic cut-downs, amplifying the underpaid job of the waste-pickers communities in developing countries, which are the last resource to shield the oceans from being swept by the catastrophic waves of plastic waste.

In the midst of writing this piece, I am urging myself not to drown into pessimism and cheer both the infinite individual steps people take to reduce plastic use and waste, and to spread information on impactful initiatives like ReSource by the WWF, aimed to obtain transparent accounting of the plastic used and recycled by multinationals.

This disclosure is already an enormous step towards transparency of data which will empower activist organisations, such as Greenpeace to ask for implementations and changes. The WWF has already been able to make recommendations to the five multinationals companies which have taken part in this project. Such recommendations see:

- Eliminate unnecessary non-recyclable products, like plastic straws for instance.

- Prioritise investment in sustainable products

- Work to double the recycling rate.

- Demanding transparency for the top 10,000 corporate companies.

An urgent implementation of the above points by many other multinational companies is required. So that the 2030 call for solving the plastic crisis can actually happen and not remain on written papers.

2030 is not far off. The need to shift a gear up all our efforts and acknowledge a mindset of action as a response to this urgency is required. Let’s start one by one. Recycle responsibly. Pick ‘it’ up, if you see plastic in the street, on the shore, in the sea. Reduce waste and consumption of the superfluous. Actively support initiatives in any way one can however little, so that big companies are exposed to the call for transparency of their use and waste management of plastic.

Most situations have become urgent and critical in this crisis in the crisis. Starting from little habits - to avoid becoming critically overwhelmed ourselves with big projects - we, individually, can have an impact.

In September 2020 founded the Clear Sea Movement - El Movimiento del Mar Claro - Il Movimento del Mar Chiaro - in support of the Marine Conservation Society UK and internationally acclaimed artist Fernando Montaño’s initiative Beach Clean. and Medusa Dance Company targeted micro-plastic on a beach in Menorca., UNESCO Natural reserve. We collected micro-plastics, as much as we could. The dancers did in such a gracious way that it became a dance. A ritual to thank Mother Nature for giving us seas, oceans, beaches and all the creatures living in this spectacular environment. We organise walks (and dances) to clean up beaches in Menorca and if you would like to get involved, please do contact us.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for sharing, if you think we are on the same wavelength…

Grazia Giuliani

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