Learning to live without plastic

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 2, 2018)

#BeatPollution was the hashtag for the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in early December. The theme was “Toward a pollution-free planet,” which all the UN member states were supposed to address in resolutions, side events and presentations at the global headquarters for the United Nations environment program.

The devil, of course, is always in the details. While governments agreed on some ambitious proposals in Nairobi, what happens when everyone gets home is the real test.

Pollution most concerns us when it is obvious, local and personal — when you can’t breathe because of poor air quality, when the water is contaminated to the point you can’t drink it, when the ground makes you and your children sick just to walk on it — then, people get upset about pollution.

What is most frightening, however, is when the effects are just as serious, but the pollution itself is not so immediate or obvious.

Take lead, for example. One resolution moved to ban lead in all paints, globally. Too many countries in the world still allow it — and Canada only banned lead in paint in 1990. Leaded gasoline is still for sale, though almost all of it is lead-free these days. Out of curiosity, I took a free blood test to check my own lead levels… and despite living in what I thought was a relatively lead-free environment, my level was 5.9/10. In an adult, apparently it needs to be more than 10 to be cause for concern, but any level of lead in children can cause serious and lifelong cognitive disabilities.

Industrial pollutants can be like this — persistent in the environment, persistent in our bodies, causing (in combination) health problems later in life. The only way to stop this from happening is to stop the pollution at the source.

Plastic is perhaps the worst example. Most of the plastic ever made is still around us — it can take thousands of years to decompose. Yet most of it is for convenience, unnecessary, used to save us time and effort. If we factored in the cost of this long-term plastic contamination of the planet, those throw-away, single-use plastics from fast-food operations (apparently the single biggest source) would cost more than stainless steel.

There is so much plastic in the oceans already that there is no longer such a thing as plastic-free wild fish anymore — and by 2050, there will be (by weight) as much plastic in the ocean as there are fish. It’s not just the big chunks, either — micro-plastics, such as microfibres from polyester clothing, or micro-beads of plastic in everything from cosmetics to toothpaste to who knows what, are already in the water we drink and the food we eat. The byproducts of plastics are certainly circulating through our bloodstreams, in ever-increasing amounts.

Despite this, the piles of plastic waste grow. One resolution started to tackle the issue of marine plastics pollution and to identify the land-based sources and the barriers to cleaning up the oceans. It may be hard for Winnipeggers to get concerned about the subject, at least until the next time you eat fish, but there are roughly a billion people worldwide who depend on the sea for the food they need to survive.

It’s a huge job — how does one clean up an ocean? — but it’s clearly easier to stop the plastic from getting into the water in the first place. We just have to start, and to stop making excuses for continuing to foul our collective nest with plastics we don’t need.

For example — plastic straws. Ban them. Period. Plastic knuckles for coffee cream? Don’t eat at restaurants that continue to serve them, because they can’t be bothered finding another way. Carry your own cutlery for takeout food — and make sure the containers are made of paper or compostable materials.

And those plastic bags, the ones we can’t seem to do without? The ones we tried to encourage people not to use, and then gave up?

For the first time ever, I had to be very careful not to pack anything (like shoes) in a plastic bag in my luggage. Kenya has joined a growing list of countries in Africa to ban single-use plastic bags. Some, like Uganda, have had limited success.

Not Kenya — enforcement is strict and the penalties are severe. With fines of US$400 and/or four years in jail, the government means business.

In the Nairobi airport on my way home, I ran into Judy Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources, and told her how wonderful it was that the Kenyan government was doing something about the problem of plastics pollution.

She said they were serious about cleaning up the problem, and the strict enforcement would continue. She was glad to hear me report that driving through the countryside, this time, past dozens of outdoor markets, plastic bags were nowhere to be seen.

Government regulations can work, if they are applied to everyone. In Nairobi, people walk into the upscale Two Rivers Mall carrying their own shopping bags — because they have no other choice except to put mushrooms in their pockets.

A ban on single-use plastics of all kinds — starting with bags — could be part of a Manitoba climate and green plan.

It only took Kenya six months.

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