World without plastics

By: Modesto P. Sa-onoy

The sight of the shorelines all over the world filled with tons of plastics of every size, color and form cannot but make a person feel that we are going to later drown in this tidal wave of garbage. It is ironic that this form of packaging that created many industries and made life easier for us has become a scourge, and governments are finally planning to seriously ban its use.

It is great to think of clearing the world of this garbage and it even looks patriotic to get them out of our lives. But can we remove plastics from this world without harm to thousands of industries and livelihood and create new monsters? Do we have alternatives that will not create more problems?

Environmentalists claim that every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollutants find their way into our oceans. There may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean. They weigh up to 269,000 tons and each day more are dumped into the oceans. Environmentalists also say that plastics “consistently make up 60% to 90% of all marine debris studied.” I recall stories of dead whales from “overeating plastics”. Indeed, plastic is non-digestible.

The records, at least the best estimate refer only to the oceans but what of rivers and lakes and dump sites? How many thousands of tons are buried underneath to remain there for another thousand years?

Plastics are made as by-products in the processing of fuel which came into modern life only at the beginning of the last century when fossil fuel became the engine of rapid industrial growth and expanded the benefits of modern living like electricity and faster transportation. However, production and development of thousands of new plastic products accelerated after World War II and transformed our way of life.

And so, the present generation cannot imagine a modern way of life without plastics. The use of plastics revolutionized medicine with life-saving devices, made space travel possible, lightened cars and jets—saving fuel and pollution—and saved lives with helmets, incubators, and equipment for clean drinking water. Even eyeglasses are now made not of glass but of plastics. The handy containers of the juices and carbonated drinks have shifted from glass bottles to plastic. One can no longer find these drinks in glass bottles. Even mineral water in light and disposal plastic containers has become the “standard” way of having water to carry and drink. Indeed, is there still bottled water in glass or tin containers?

The conveniences that plastics offer had led to “a throw-away culture that reveals the material’s dark side: today, single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year,” an environmental report says. Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food and candy wrappers have a lifespan of use for mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

So pervasive and “necessary” but alarming is the use of plastic bags and wrappers that Bacolod and other cities have passed ordinances prohibiting their use. Paper bags and even bayong made of pandans leaves were proposed, a throw-back into the days when there were no plastic bags. At first, there was enthusiasm and attempts were made to use substitutes. But the “pride” of Bacolod for initiating this ordinance was short-lived.

The experiment failed and the city does not enforce the ordinance anymore. City officials talk about enforcing the ban, but nothing came out of it. Indeed, it was good on paper and for publicity (used in fact as an election campaign propaganda) but it seems nobody took the city seriously because the merchants know the city could not truly enforce it. It is not that businessmen are not concerned about the environment but simply because there are no viable and environmentally acceptable alternatives.

Consider the initial proposal -use paper bags, degradable plastics, and as already mentioned the bayong and the alat, or bamboo basket – but can they comply with the demands? Paper is made from trees – how many will be felled and how much would each bag cost? Imagine people who would go shopping after office hours carrying the bayong or the alat.

We can cite many examples of the extreme difficulty in enforcing a total ban, even just the plastic bag. Let environmentalist propose workable alternatives.