Those chemicals are not just in plastics, but also in cosmetics, cleaning products and suchlike. But plastic is what worries me, because it’s relatively easy to cut down on cleaning products, and we use plastic to keep food in, often coated with futuristic substances to make it softer or less sticky, or to stop it steaming up.
The line taken by packaging companies seems to be: “Well, yes, asbestos, formaldehyde, benzene, paraffin etc may be toxic, but because only a tiny amount rubs off, they are safe.” But no one can say for sure that the chemicals are safe over a long period, day in, day out, nor do they know what harm might be caused by mixing them.
So what to do? Simply banning stuff doesn’t necessarily help, as the story of Bisphenol A or BPA shows. BPA is a synthetic compound, in use since 1957, for plastic cups, food containers and canned products. It has hormone-like properties, is an “endocrine disrupter”, and is banned in many countries – in response to public concern – in packaging intended for toddlers.
A new chemical is used to make aircraft wings super-slippery so that ice does not stick (Fotolia/AP)
My family gets through a huge amount of tinned Italian tomatoes, which are acidic and leech BPA from the can linings, so how do I know whether my children’s hormones are being disrupted? And what can I do about it? You’d have thought that buying one of the many “BPA-free” containers now available was the answer, but it turns out that they’re probably just as bad – or worse.
According to Time magazine, two common BPA substitutes, BPS and BPF, are “hormonally active” in very similar ways to BPA. A professor summed up the problem rather neatly: “We’ve got to do something about putting brand new compounds in products without having consulted with biologists about what they do.”
Oh, and watch out for till receipts: did you know that the thermal paper they’re printed on is often teeming with BPS and BPF, which easily “migrates” from receipt to skin?
Do plastics matter or are they just the latest thing for the worried well to fret over? We can’t live in a world without chemicals, and they make life easier. All I know is that hollow reassurances emanating from the industry, which has a conflict of interest, bring no comfort.
The Tube strike last week happened during fine weather, so many people were happy to leave more time and stroll if they could, unhurried. I saw one breakdown in manners, however – on an overland train from Clapham Junction.
Train passengers are not used to filing down inside the carriages as Underground passengers are. So when more hot-faced commuters than usual began cramming themselves on to the train, there was argy-bargy.
A small woman with massive headphones clamped over her ears became irate that people were expecting her to move inwards. She shouted that “some people can’t reach to hold on” and then: “Someone’s going to get hurt!” After that, wilting travellers shifted their feet, looked down and resigned themselves to the foully overcrowded conditions, as people in London do.
A visit to the food court, the supermarket or just a quick drink of water when you are thirsty – no matter where you go, you get the option to make your life easy with plastic bottles, bags or cutlery. Yes, it is bad for the environment, and with human beings having produced 9.1 billion tons of plastic since its mass production began 60 years ago, a case can be made for the reduced use of plastic in our everyday lives. But is it really possible to stay without plastic? Gulf News readers debate.
The problem is not awareness but alternatives
I am a postgraduate in environmental science and have also taught for some time. What I feel is that we have reached a point of no return when you look at the way we have developed. But there is an old saying: If there is a will, there is a way. If you can avoid unnecessary use of plastic, yes you might be seen as an alien in today’s world, but there is a way to avoid using plastic. I have seen people who do that. But convenience and conservation are completely different ends. If you want convenience, you end up ignoring conservation but it is up to you – you have the choice. It really depends on how well-educated you are and how much concern you have for the environment. I know there are people who still use reusable bags and we, too, use them when we can. At a personal level, I have made an effort to try and create awareness. I have two children in school and on parent engagement week, I showed the students a presentation on the future of an imaginary 10-year-old boy whose life was horrible because of all the plastic in the world and the introduction of artificial things around us. But when you look at the reality, even if you want to recycle, you don’t have many options. Yes, I have seen the recycling bins in parks, shopping malls and some upmarket areas. You find them in high-end communities but not in the middle-income areas. If there really is an option to recycle plastic, I think 50 per cent of the people would be happy to do it because people know how much plastic is affecting the environment. The problem is not awareness but that there is no way to do it even if you are willing to do it. If you have to walk a distance every time you have to recycle plastic, you will think twice.
From Ms Jacob Thomas
Logistics manager living in Sharjah
When it comes to change, every step counts
Every year eight million tonnes of plastic, with all the toxins they contain, are dumped into the sea and pose a threat to sea life and ecosystems. Many of the sea creatures we love – birds, fish, turtles and whales – die because of the plastic that is suffocating our seas. Plastic garbage, which decomposes very slowly, is often mistaken for food by marine animals. High concentration of plastic material, particularly plastic bags, have been found blocking the breathing passages and stomachs of many marine species, including whales, dolphins, seals, puffins and turtles. Plastic six-pack rings for drink bottles can also choke marine animals.
Plastic pollution in our oceans is a global issue, it can be found everywhere from Atlantic beaches to Arctic sea ice to huge swirling vortexes of trash in the Pacific Ocean. And you can find it in every shape and size, from microscopic particles to whole refrigerators full of plastic parts. At the World Economic Forum in 2016, experts warned us that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. In addition, micro-plastics and toxins accumulating in fish tissues can also be harmful to human health. But plastic itself isn’t the enemy. It’s the way we handle it that needs to change. It is important to engage with the public and young generations to act as champions for ocean conservation.
If we look around, plastics seem to be incorporated in every part of our daily routine. From the pens we use in the office, to the bottle we drink our water from, to the bags we carry our groceries in. But this does not mean that we are too dependent on plastic. There are alternatives out there, we can choose to make that change in our everyday lives, and re-think our plastic use.
We need to act now – there’s no time to waste. Avoiding single use plastics – such as plastics cups and cutlery – could make the real difference we need to protect the planet.
We also need businesses to take the issue seriously. Whether it is supermarkets having a plastic-free aisle with products sold in bulk or companies finding alternatives to plastic packaging or simply reducing unnecessary packaging and plastic bags. Each individual can make a lifestyle change, from recycling more to drinking from reusable water bottles and leaving no waste footprint at the places we like to spend time such as the beach or desert.
You might think your contribution is small, but together our collective action is powerful.
From Ms Marina Antonopoulou
Marine Programme Leader at Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF
Awareness does not always lead to change
We were living without plastic before plastic was invented. We might need plastic but not in every aspect of our lives. We can replace plastic with jute bags and water bottles with other alternatives. We can’t completely eliminate plastic but we can reduce it to a sustainable level.
As far as I can, I try to recycle. I usually don’t go shopping, but we do use jute bags instead of plastic bags, simply because they are easier to carry and are stronger. But you can’t do away with plastic bags completely. You need plastic bags to dispose of your garbage, for example. You literally get everything wrapped in plastic and we still need to buy things. So, there needs to be cooperation between industries and people to actually create solutions. If we need to minimise plastic use, we need a solution that is as convenient as plastic. For example, frozen food is also wrapped in plastic and young people don’t have the time to make food, so we often prefer frozen food. If we have organic supermarkets and organic production at a very large scale, living without plastic might be possible even though at the moment, it seems a little far-fetched looking at where we are right now.
There are places in India, like Kerala and some places in Mumbai, that have banned the use of plastic. But as far as awareness campaigns are concerned, I don’t think they really lead to behavioural change. For example, when there is an awareness campaign at school, participation is encouraged and most students join in because they will get a certificate that is good for their college application. Even at the campaign, you can see people misuse plastic quite often. At one of the clean-up campaigns where I participated, we collected all the plastic that was strewn and put them in bags. However, when we reached the recycle bin, the hole was too small and we couldn’t throw the bag in. So, some students just threw the bag in the regular waste bins. When I pointed out that this does not make sense, they just shrugged it off and said, “Leave it, we got the certificate”. That sort of an attitude in awareness campaigns is not going to help. If we are not bothered about it, I don’t think it is of any use.
From Ms Prashasti Saxena
Pupil living in Sharjah
Plastic has become a symbol of our behavioural mismanagement
I think it is possible to live without plastic, but it is just unrealistic. We have to take into consideration that plastic is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the way we over-utilise plastic, which is to be blamed.
The overuse of plastic has a very visible, tangible impact on the environment. This information has made its way to public awareness and we are able to convince people of its negative impact. If you look at plastic bags, water bottles or cutlery, what our problem has essentially become is that we utilise plastic as a substitute for our behavioural patterns. Rather than cleaning, we would rather throw it away. We can definitely live without plastic but we need to look at plastic as a resource. Right now, plastic has become a symbol of our behavioural mismanagement.
More than distinguishing between essential and non-essential plastic, for me the distinction should be made between plastic and its substitute. When we look at terms like ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’, they have been grossly misused. Non-essential plastic is anything that would occur in view of creating minimum work for us but when you look at a reusable resource as an alternative, is it more labour intensive? My work involves comparing alternatives against common practices specifically. So, for example, I would say let us get rid of plastic plates. What is the alternative? If the alternative is washing by abusing water resources, it would not necessarily yield any positive result. But, if you say you will be using a bucket to clean and save water then it is a more eco-friendly alternative. From the United Nations’ point of view, eco-friendly is something that is seen as an improvement on the baseline condition, the baseline condition being the business-as-usual practice.
For example, my baseline for food waste is that 40 per cent of municipal solid waste is organic waste, which produces methane. So, anything that reduces solid waste will help reduce carbon emission. How can I do that? I could put one of those shredders at home, which are very common in the US, and essentially move the organics waste through the disposal network and it gets processed in water sewage plants, which reduces carbon emissions.
For plastic, we should use plastic that is cyclical and built based on the circular economy. This basically means that at the design state, they have already anticipated how this plastic can be processed into the value chain with minimal amount of downgrading because unfortunately when you process plastic you risk down-cylcing, not recycling.
Another major example is packaging – the two elements that have a profound impact on plastic reduction is size and packaging. For me, it is important for the consumer to have least amount of packaging as possible and this is far away from the local practice, because we love our packaging to be rich. What we need to understand is that even though it might look beautiful, it is a waste of resources. When you look at the alternative, less packaging means buying in bulk, which really just fixes one problem and creates another – overconsumption. So, use the right amount don’t unnecessarily encourage the resources that bring no value at the end.
Personally, I think the best way to reduce plastic consumption is for society to label as ‘not cool’. If ours is a society that frowns upon use and abuse of plastic then it will have an impact. Until we create a paradigm shift that allows us to move in that direction, change will be very small.
From Mr Ivano Iannelli
CEO of Dubai Carbon, an environmental service provider for a low-carbon economy
— Compiled by Huda Tabrez/Community Web Editor
Have Your Say: Do you think it is practical to expect people to live without plastic? Are awareness campaigns effective in creating behavioural change? Do you have an innovative idea to create change at a mass level? Share your views with us at email@example.com
What do you think is the biggest challenge to reducing plastic use?
• Lack of awareness
• Lack of viable alternatives
• Lack of interest