Monday, 10 December 2018

Plastic, Pachyderms and Profit

The critically endangered Hawksbill turtle
(Source: Aquaimages, Wikimedia Commons)

Plastic, Pachyderms* and Profit 
In Search of Solutions for a Sustainable Future

Posted by Matthew Edward Scarborough and Lina Scarborough

Before the advent of rifle-armed hunters, the African continent was home to tens of millions of elephants. By 1920 however, there are estimated to have been less than two hundred of them left in all of South Africa. Fast-forward to today, when there are once more thriving (though increasingly poached) populations of thousands of elephants. What saved elephants from extinction? A growing concern for the environment? The creation of national parks? Yes … but not only. There is also a more unexpected reason for elephants doing much better today: Materials Science.

A century ago, ivory was used in all manner of household objects: piano keys, combs, chess-pieces, bracelets, buttons and billiard-balls. Billiard-balls in particular were one of the main causes and largest culprits for the decline in elephant populations: in Sri Lanka in particular, elephant populations were decimated in order to produce the much sought-after billiard-balls. Fashionable as ivory was, it soon became apparent that demand well exceeded supply. In 1907 however, a scientist developed a substance named Bakelite: a hard, durable, ivory-like plastic which can now be found in many everyday objects. But since then plastics have also become ubiquitous -- we use them daily to the point that escaping plastic feels impossible.

This is where you fit into the challenge.

Today no one would dream of shooting an elephant to make a piano keyboard -- and it was ironically plastic that helped save the elephant. It is now high time we changed our behaviour once again, as plastic itself becomes a threat to the environment and its flora and fauna.

But is plastic really so bad?

Speak to our friend Talitha Noble, who works at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. She is a marine biologist who spends most days rehabilitating turtles stranded on our South African beaches -- loggerhead and leatherback, green, the petite olive ridley and hawksbill turtles, all of which wash up on our shores in a poor state. It is not uncommon to find plastics (especially micro-plastics) being passed from their digestive systems.

Although Talitha is a dispassionate scientist, it’s hard not to develop an attachment to individual turtles. One turtle in particular – called Bob, arrived at the aquarium in a poor condition. He wasn’t eating or diving, tragically developed meningitis, brain damage, and even went partially blind. After being in rehabilitation for several months he passed a lot of plastic, including the remains of bags and a balloon. When he passed the plastic, it was a turning-point in his recovery. Bob is now a poster-child for plastic awareness, but there are countless other turtles: a large loggerhead called Noci even had a piece of plastic in his tummy which had travelled all the way from China.

The convenience of plastic, unfortunately, often trumps values. Those tools of convenience bear the flip-side of potentially being tools of mass destruction, fuelled by brand and consumer apathy. We can’t wait for the eventual launch of the next big materials invention. Act now by using the available alternatives.

For example, re-usable and handy mesh bags are easily bought online, or from modern eco-friendly shops. It doesn’t take much effort to purchase and keep one’s own re-usable cloth bags in the car, in comparison to the process it takes to make plastic, and then deal with its catastrophic consequences.

Plastics are derived from either crude oil or natural gasses which, geologically-speaking, took millions of years of form. We consumers in contrast typically use said plastic for the relatively short time taken from the grocery shop to our homes, before throwing the plastic packets and styrofoam boxes away for good.

But being thrown out is far from the end of your plastic. Plastic on the tops of landfills are often carried far away by the wind. If it doesn’t end up wafting up and down your street or in the stomach of an animal, it’ll evntually go into the ground, even if it is recycled (recycling can only be done so many times before the recycled plastic too needs to be discarded). Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic (so-called micro-plastics) now fill our oceans and have infiltrated our food-chains, causing massive (if largely unseen) ecological damage. So the best way to curb single-use plastic pollution is therefore to reduce your personal plastic consumption in the first place.

Yet all the research in the world might not be powerful enough to change our collective consumer psyche. It’s up to us individuals to put pressure on shops to adapt to the modern reality of wasted resources. It’s up to the shops to do their role to respond and offer initiatives and awareness. Together this mess was created, and together it must be fixed.

Consumers -- we must take the initiative and buy or make our own grocery bags for fruit and nuts, and cut the styrofoam out once and for all. I try to encourage the shopper next to me in line to do the same. Brand owners and supermarkets -- why not put up placards creating awareness so that consumers start bringing their own re-usable bags for loose fruits and nuts? Add a small surcharge on offering single-use plastics – as much as 50 cents often sways consumers, as it registers with them that there is a cost involved. If the costs are out of sight (such as the dead or injured marine animals somewhere out there), then it’s also out of mind.

All the knowledge in the world might not be powerful enough to change the consumer psyche. When all has been said, art and poetry may help to convey a sense of the bigger picture. In the poem A World Without Plastic, Stephen Katona writes:

It would be fantastic,
If we stopped using plastic,
And eased the world's pain,
With a healthy food chain.
Turtles would no longer gag,
On a supermarket's bag.

We can choose change from today with things wrapped the right way:

Rethink the bag – ban the balloon – and bring your own bakkie#. Together we can have a sustainable future with much less plastic (and happy turtles!).


*Pronounced patchi-derms: A large mammal with thick skin, especially an elephant, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus. 

#A South Africanism for an ice-cream box or similar re-usable container. 

And a bit about the authors:  

Matthew is a Zoology PhD student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where he researches the evolution of extinct elephants and mammoths. Lina Scarborough (formerly Ufimtseva) is a project manager at a German language agency in Cape Town with an interest in linguistics and ecology (Lina and Matthew got married in June this year).


Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Lina and Matthew, Thank you for giving attention to the above issues. Though before we were born information about these future damages did not lack.

In the western world I believe that when people do not see their waste ( neatly put in containers), it’s as if somehow it does exist but doesn’t. In Morocco I see fields of waste in the midst of deserted landscapes where colorful plastic bags decorate a nature that cannot stand its own dryness. The government recently improved a collecting system for waste and in comparison to the western societies waste is pro person less. The problem is however the same.

Industries cannot stop producing packaging, and so many things like paint ( to mention one) have become accepted by a majority to decorate houses, and even when there are alternatives, the majority will always excuse itself for not having the time or money to do differently. It are the excuses that human being can always find to not be responsible, that eventually keeps up a system that knows no other than itself. Sadly I doubt that humanity is able to perform radical change.

Keith said...

There was a recent online CNN summary, in lay terms, of a scientific study done on this precise topic—plastic pollution in the world’s oceans—by researchers from the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory, teaming with Greenpeace Research Laboratories. Let me share a summary of the summary. Apparently, the 102 sea turtles examined—representing habitats in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean—accounted for many hundreds of synthetic particles. And even that high number was from only portions of the turtles’ intestines being examined—meaning actual contamination among the 102 was probably much higher. It should be noted that the tests were conducted only on turtles that had already died from various causes.

As one of the researchers concluded, ‘The ubiquity of the presence of the particles and fibers underlies the gravity of the situation in the oceans and the need to proceed with firm and decisive action on the misuse of plastics’. The researcher’s use of the word ‘ubiquity’ is underscored, I would suggest, by these estimates: some 5 million to 13 million tons [my rounding] of plastic waste could be entering the world’s oceans every year, contributing to an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic. Regardless of the precision or imprecision of these sorts of numbers—and regardless of the thin slice of nature’s habitat studied by these researchers—there needs to be global recognition of the ominous situation. If additional incentive is needed to overcome inertia and spur action in our role as stewards of the planet's ecosystem, maybe our pondering that the aquatic food chain means that much of this junk, including unsavory microplastics, is getting into our guts, too.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Matthew and Lina, for a good read.

Some statistics of 1966, 52 years ago. That year, researchers found 386 dead albatrosses in a Pacific wildlife refuge. They examined 100 of these, of which 74% had ingested 241 items of plastic. This was published in a leading journal in 1969 (it's Kenyon and Krindler). So what did we miss? And what might we be missing now?

The general view seems to be that we just need to correct course. In a word, react.

An obvious problem is that we have not been thinking holistically enough. In other words, we have been thinking reductionistically. So we manufacture plastic with specific ends in mind, and so on, but we fail to think on the big picture. Some say the problem is that we do not have a philosophy in place, which is adequate to the challenge. React, react, react is doomed to failure.

The philosophers Kamlah and Lorenzen wrote that the scientific method 'screens things out'. By its very nature, it is reductionistic. As a result, it carries with it the 'heavy price' of unpleasant and unforeseen side effects. Yet this is the thinking that characterises our age. In our hubris we exalt it, yet it must mean destruction. There is no good news.

docmartincohen said...

The thing that puzzles me is why oil-based plastics are ubiquitous, and alternatives are not mandatory. One obvious alternative is cartons - for example for drinks, or paper bags, or waxed cardboard. And then there are the biodegradable plastics, like the new fish based ones. It seems there is so much that could so EASILY be done by determined legislators, yet instead the issue is privatised, or ignored. Bringing in a philosopher, for a moment (!) Adam Smith always underestimated the inability of the market to price costs like the deaths of turtles in the oceans against the shot-term interests of commerce.

docmartincohen said...

There is just one mention Adam Smith makes of a need to as it were over-ride the free market. It is in situations where :

"“erecting and maintaining certain publick works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals to erect and maintain; because the profit would never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”

Saving the oceans from plastic is of course one such case. But the 'institutions' remain curiously reluctant to act.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I came across a succinct explanation for plastic: we were seeking to overcome decay.

Adam Smith envisaged an economics which is self-adjusting. This is less the case, I think, than we often imagine. A lot of legislation already regulates our economic life. We take it for granted: the abolition of slavery and child labour, the introduction of equality laws, safety regulations, social security legislation, and so on.

docmartincohen said...

Wasn't he really talking about prices and distribution of goods and materials? Clearly society needs a framework of laws, and that owl include things like whether you can force people to work for you under slave conditions. The reverse case is the Soviet Union, which had quite stint from the general laws this network of civil servants calculating business plans. I think that's where the Smith hypothesis continues to have ... er... value

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