Would you give up your phone? Let’s be practical about plastic
It isn't going away and there's no silver bullet, so we need to think differently about our big plastic problem
I was having dinner this Saturday in good company: there was an academic on surf history with a deep interest in sea pollution, an oceanographer from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a director of one of SA’s biggest funding organisations, and a top-notch organisational expert, among whom floated an artist, lawyer, child psychologist, a padre (Jesus was invoked over the warming tray) and one man with an accent whose profession I couldn’t pin down but was impeccably nice.
At one point in the conversation the oceanographer turned his extraordinarily handsome face to me and asked the question I was afraid to ask the man with the accent: What is it that you do?
That was how the conversation turned to plastics, the thing that is on everybody’s lips these days. Collectively and so suddenly, it seems, the cumulative effect of plastic campaigning has washed over the world and is in the fabric of everything.
In fact, I happened to be wearing a pair of stockings, with a gorgeous stretch-wool dress. My girlfriends were all wearing some kind of stretch fabric on their legs, and I posit there were plenty of elasticated underpants present too. Plastic is in the very fibre of our lives. So what is the solution?
This was exactly the question the oceanographer chose to ask right then. There’s nothing more startling than being put on the spot by an academic. I’ve not been in this field long, but have been immersed in the plastic-waste conversation, so I surprised even myself with an answer: There is no one solution.
The anti-plastic movement is growing stronger, but often with simplistic arguments, I told him, and this is problematic. They don’t allow us to consider the real and complex issues, which all need to be considered for real solutions to be found.
For example, think about these things: syringes, gloves, tyres, plasters, windbreakers and wetsuits. They all have some form of plastic in them. All of them are necessary (a well-placed plaster can stop a disaster, any parent would agree).
I work for the Sustainable Seas Trust, an organisation focused on the health of African seas and the communities living around it. Plastic pollution is central to our conversation, and last year, for the first time, Africans came together at the African Marine Waste Network Conference in Port Elizabeth (which has just been named a runner-up in SA’s greenest municipality competition) as a starting point to this conversation looking for solutions to the plastics problem.
This conversation is so young, really. There are so many factors to be considered: How do we talk recycling in a world where people are struggling to put food on the table? Could the value of plastic waste be reconsidered to provide possible enterprise opportunities, as evidenced by the remarkable Packa-Ching project?
What about the fact that plastic is ubiquitous in our lives and we’re addicted to convenient living? How much are we, are you, personally, willing to give up?
Pick your no-go items
There are a number of main inhibitors to changing our behaviour. Things that cost us time, money and physical effort are only three reasons human beings keep doing the familiar, even if harmful to the environment.
I say this not as a provocation, or an argument for plastics (god forbid), but as an honest question: What are you not prepared to give up?
And if there are no-go items such as your phone, or your laptop, your car tyres, then know you are one of billions more; plastic is not going away.
So we need to consider these questions seriously and properly, and ask more probing questions to understand the complexity of the issues we face so we can create solutions over time (not too much time, mind) that are real and lasting and circular.
Because who’s going to be willing to give up their phone?
I thought not.
• Sonya Schoeman is head of communications for the Sustainable Seas Trust. The African Marine Waste Network is a project of the trust that focuses on finding solutions to the problem of plastic waste on the continent. Its goal is zero plastics to Africa’s seas by 2035. www.sst.org.za