One of the things I remember most clearly about my three months volunteering in Brazil with Tearfund, was the amount of plastic waste. Images of the damage caused in São Paulo in particular remain etched in my mind: rivers stagnating, dammed with plastic waste. It seemed that if the plastic bottle discarded in the street didn’t end up in a stinking, polluted river, it ended up in the hands of a drug-addicted street kid who would fill it with glue and walk around with it permanently held up to their face.
Either way, its ending was one of brokenness.
São Paulo is one of the most highly populated cities in the world, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by what I saw. But recently it was reported that Henderson Island, an uninhabited landmass in the South Pacific, is the most polluted island in the world, despite also being the most isolated.
Even being free of direct human presence, it can’t escape the plastic havoc we’re wreaking on the planet.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also home to 17.6 tonnes of plastic waste, accounting for a mere 1.98 seconds’ worth of annual production of plastic, and washing up on its shores at a rate of around 13,000 items per day.
Then, in the North Pacific, there’s the Great Pacific garbage patch – so significant that it’s also known as the seventh continent – which is made up of waste produced by humans, including plastic waste.
It’s essential that we recognise the value of our individual actions
Every time I have a clear-out and come across some useless piece of plastic I feel troubled; whether it’s the plastic paintbrush rapidly shedding bristles I’ve had since I was five, or the unidentified plastic object that probably belongs to some electronic device which, incidentally, also has to be discarded of somehow.
My internal turmoil continues, as I realise that despite my well-meaning efforts, plastic waste isn’t limited to whether or not I buy my vegetables in plastic packaging, whether I use bottled shampoo and conditioner or plastic-free bars, or whether I decide to use a traditional plastic toothbrush as opposed to a bamboo one.
The Story of Stuff project estimates that there are 1.4 million trillion plastic microfibers in our oceans. Those microfibers shed from our clothes when we wash them, which means that despite the fact my polyester blend jumper doesn’t look or feel plastic, it is part of my plastic footprint. Buying clothes responsibly doesn’t stop at who made them and in what conditions, which is a challenge enough; it extends to the very composition of their fabric. Plastic’s invasion into our everyday lives doesn’t even stop there, and The Story of Stuff project is a great place to go for more information.
Despite the fact that I feel really rather impotent armed with a bamboo toothbrush, particularly in the face of Trump’s seemingly damaging decision to pull out of the Paris agreement, it’s essential that we recognise the value of our individual actions – perhaps now more than ever.
Michael Bloomberg stated that ‘Americans will honour and fulfil the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up’. That includes everything from his own pledging of $15 million to fill the void left by Trump’s withdrawal, to the small acts of people like you and I standing up and taking action to reduce our footprints.
One of the first events of the Bible is God appointing humans as stewards of the earth; it is a foundational role. When leaders fail to fulfil that role, it becomes even more urgent that ordinary citizens recognise their own part to play. Of course, Trump’s decision is deplorable, but it does not diminish my own responsibility, my own complicity in the photos I see of plastic-filled creatures washed up on beaches, and the stagnant rivers I saw in Brazil.
What could you do to reduce your own consumption of plastic?
Why not take a moment to jot down five small steps you can take towards fulfilling your responsibility as a grassroots steward of the earth – a steward who doesn’t needlessly litter the planet with plastic.
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