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Today, 22nd April 2019 is the 49th World Earth Day. It is an annual call for the world to examine its attitude towards the blue planet.
Environmental problems are getting out of hand due to our anthropocentric activities and irresponsible habits. We are at a stage where we need to club the mandates of all the previous Earth Days and apply it to our lives every single day.
This year’s theme is to ‘Protect Our Species’ and last year it was to ‘End Plastic Pollution’. Both the mandates are interlinked and are unfortunately linked to human activities. The waste we are generating is literally gobbling up habitats leaving no scope for other denizens of the Earth to survive. What is unfortunate is that our actions in Mumbai, Bangalore, New York or London are affecting other remote parts of the Earth. Erstwhile paradises are turning into graveyards.
A case in point is the Midway Atolls in the North Pacific Ocean. It is far away from civilisation, and one would think that nothing would disturb its peace and quiet. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Because of its proximity to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it collects plastic and other trash of the world. What should have been a sylvan area, looks like a plastic invasion.
What is heartrending is that it is a crucial habitat for more than 250 marine species, including several albatross species, green sea turtles and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. The documentary ‘Albatross’ filmed by photographer Chris Jordan and his team is heart-rending and is an urgent call to action to stop using plastic and look at other sustainable alternatives. Do see the 3-minute trailer that is available on the internet and you will know what I mean.
The bottom line is that there is nothing as “thrown away”. When we throw something – it must go somewhere!
Now is an opportune time for us to look into our individual habits and homes, as it is no cliché that each one of us can make a difference. The use of plastics starts on your breakfast table and continues through the day. Your bread is wrapped in polythene, your milk comes in polythene packets, and all your groceries are packed in different shapes and sizes of polythene packs. At a party, one sees the liberal use of disposable cups and cutlery. Indeed, this is the age of disposable or ‘use and throw’ consumerist society, which is generating a huge amount of waste. Our landfills are overflowing and soon there will be no land.
The following table lists the time period various materials take to degrade. Do mull over it.
Since the production of plastics, over 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin (non-recycled) plastic has been produced to date, generating 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste, of which only 9% has been recycled and 12% has been incinerated.
Our lifestyles need a paradigm shift but it needn’t daunting. I will list a few tips that can contribute immensely to protecting our planet.
While some plastic items can be recycled, thin plastic bags last only from the shop to home. They have zero reusability, that even rag pickers ignore them. These usually make their way to sewers and block them. Burning them releases carcinogenic gases called dioxins and furans. I have stitched cloth bags from old clothes and bedcovers and take them everywhere for shopping. Recently, shops have substituted poly-bags with another material which mimics cloth. These are made from polypropylene, which is even worse than plastic as they cannot be recycled. So that mantra should be ‘Bring your own bag’.
Imagine the number of Polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles you will save by this simple act. Statistics say that a million bottles are bought every minute around the world. While these can be recycled to ‘lower’ grade plastic, only a fraction reaches recycling facilities- and definitely, there is no ‘going away’. Instead, most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean. Scientists have found that people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year.
Speaking for myself I also slip in a small plate, glass and a spoon in my bag. For a flight, I fill up water at the airport after security check and save one more disposable cup being discarded.
You can substitute your plastic toothbrushes with ones made with bamboo. When you need to discard it, just clip the bristles and the rest can go into the compost bin. Bamboo items are versatile and I personally have substituted cutlery, straws, cotton buds and other travel items with those made from bamboo. These are easily available online and in select shops.
This is a plea. Please refrain from using the so-called ‘paper cups and plates’. Insist on reusable ceramic or stainless steel ones. For an event, there are cutlery and crockery banks that you can hire from. It will be way cheaper and you will pat yourself for not sending a tone of waste to the landfill.
In this case, ‘paper’ is a misnomer as they are coated with a plastic lining to prevent leaking of the liquid or semi-solid it holds. These cannot be recycled and for a few seconds of use, it is a heavy price we pay for the environment.
If you are healthy- surely you can drink without a straw. And the reason you need to refuse them is that plastic straws are too lightweight to make it through the mechanical recycling sorter. They escape through sorters and mix with other materials and are too small to separate. This further contaminates recycling loads which have to be discarded like trash in landfills. They are a major source of micro-plastics in oceans too. The good news, however, is that the ban on them is spreading. If you do need a straw, opt for a bamboo straw.
Paper towels are the brand ambassadors for wasteful living. Using kitchen cloth towels that can be washed and reused is far more hygienic and watch your savings grow!
Basically, the mantra is ‘mindful consumption’, as the guiding principle if we need a livable planet. Happy Earth Day!
Image source: shutterstock
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Sangeeta Venkatesh is the co-author of 'The Waste Issue' - an interactive workbook for school
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