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Unwrapping “A Plastic Ocean”

“This is a nice place, but because of importing packaging, they destroy our paradise. And I want to give a good future for my children, because I love my children” – Marao Apisai.

Marao Apisai is a resident of Tulvalu, a small atoll in the Polynesian subregion of Oceania in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Australia and Hawaii. Once a beautiful island, nature filled and unclaimed, it is now laden with eight borrow pits, formed during World War Two as Allies extracted corals from this atoll, but never filled it back. It became a place for garbage accumulation due to the inability to dispose of them easily. With increasing population, it soon became a home for many families such as that of Marao Apisai. This resulted in the spreading of diseases, drastically reducing the standard of living for the residents of this once lovely paradise. There is only one culprit in this tale, as Marao Apisai points out – imported packaging i.e., plastic.

“A Plastic Ocean” (2016) is a documentary that stars this culprit, and the woes it brings through its use. The documentary highlights the idea of one cause leading to multiple effects. The cause—improper disposal and use of plastic—is so prominent in everyday life that it often goes unnoticed. We have grown up being warned about things which are harmful for us—drugs, smoking, etc. However, no one ever warned us about plastic; the fact that our modern diet is laden with microplastics makes it undeniably detrimental to our health because it contains toxic chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA) that causes Estrogenic Activity (EA).

The chemical BPA enters the body and mimics the hormone estrogen (important for many developmental and psychological processes in the human body) causing numerous health issues including diabetes, obesity, among others. Owing to such potential health concerns, countries like Canada, USA, and the European Union have prohibited the use of BPA in the manufacture of feeding bottles for infants. France has also forbade its use in any food or beverage packaging. To go a step further, it is not only harmful to humans, but also to other living beings around us.

This is where the multiple effects come into play because, as it turns out, from our simple action of disposal, such materials find themselves in the ocean and sea, the home to aquatic wildlife. From there the plastic garbage travels a great distance along the ocean, propelled by the movements of the gyres (large system of rotating ocean currents), and slowly breaks down with the strong rays of the sun. What is left floating on open waters are millions of jagged micro-plastics that find their way into the stomachs of animals. Aquatic animals don’t really distinguish between what they eat. Most swallow everything that comes in—water, fish, plankton and sadly, plastic. This destroys their digestion system as the plastic pieces fill up their stomachs, affecting their ability to take in actual food and thus, they die of starvation. The plastic also contains toxic chemicals that flow through their body. Subsequently, it finds its way into our digestive system, since aquatic animals as a good source of protein are consumed by people worldwide. This directly affects our health and wellbeing.

If the garbage is not disposed of in the sea, it is disposed on large islands such a Smokey Mountain I and II—terms coined for the Tondo district of Manila, Philippines—because of the manmade mountains of waste it contains. High income countries export between 10 to 25 percent of their waste to poorer countries, adding to the already mounting garbage. As time passes, this pile of garbage slowly starts to accumulate methane, which on reaching a certain temperature, incinerates and causes high amounts of air pollution leading to pulmonary diseases. The incineration of plastic and garbage is not only a result of this natural process, but many people purposely ignite plastic, since it is a short-term solution to deal with stockpiles of garbage. What makes the situation worse is that many of these islands are home to families, and they have to live their life on roads made of garbage, and stench that would make anyone sick to the stomach. This is where the distinction between the standard of living across the world stands out.

These multiple effects that pan out from the moment we dispose of a plastic item is a result of our “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” attitude, resulting in a lack of accountability and a culture of disavowal. This attitude is especially prevalent within companies, where once the commodities are manufactured and sold, what happens to it afterwards is not part of the company’s priorities. We simultaneously know, but don’t really know what happens to the plastic item beyond our use, therefore, we tend to make the broader assumption that it “disappears” to the “middle of nowhere”, and it is taken care of by “someone”. However, there is nothing that truly disappears, and there is no middle of nowhere. Moreover, who is this “someone”?

This attitude and the assumptions that go along with it, shared by people and companies alike, creates the problem of the “Tragedy of the Commons”. It is a situation where individuals only think about their personal gain, and neglect the wellbeing of society. Overconsumption of plastic commodities by individuals leads to depletion/degradation of common resources, i.e., the environment, thus affecting the well-being of the society. “Tragedy of the Commons” also follows from the pathological consumption that occurs in consumer economies. It normally includes commodities such as “solar-powered waving queen, a belly button brush, a silver-plated ice cream tub holder”. All these commodities are made of plastic, and within a few days, they find themselves in landfills. In such situations, consumer sovereignty is hard to pinpoint, because regulations and marketing tactics of big companies governing demand and supply of such commodities encourage such purchases. Economic growth competition forces countries to participate in the creation of such junk. Tax subsidies, deregulation of business and manipulation of interest rate by governments, make it cheaper for companies to produce these products and for consumers to spend on such items. Such policies are aimed at increasing the economic growth of the country, but at the expense of increased inequality, not just within the country, but across the world. The commodities disposed of in one country, somehow finds its way to the other as garbage, diminishing the standard of living of many.

Through the years, as the effect of our neglect worsened, resulting in the creation of areas such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, solutions started to surface. One of the first major problems that is to be tackled is recycling of plastic. Only 7 percent of plastic that we dispose of is recycled. One of the solutions proposed in the documentary was that the manufacturing companies should be held accountable for the proper disposal of their products, and the costs that come with it. This solution is slow to come about since companies, being profit maximizers and cost minimizers, would not want to take up such a large expense to their books. But unless companies are held accountable, they will continue to produce products that are most cost effective to them, disregarding the side effects that result from it. If companies find it more profitable to produce virgin plastic,i.e., plastic that is used for the very first time, then they would continue to do so rather than use recycled plastic.

In the documentary, the Director of Axion Polymers, a US based engineering-led company operating in the resource recovery sector, Roger Morton, provides an opposition to the general viewpoint of high costs behind recycled plastic. He believes that the cost of plastic going to landfills is actually more, and that recycled plastic is actually very valuable. This is because once the plastic is recycled, it can be made into nodules, which can be used in all sorts of other products, not only repeated plastic bottles but also headlamps, cars, etc. If everyone can be consolidated to this solution, then people can invest more in recycling technology, thus making it a profitable business. It is a matter of economies of scale, with more people reducing the cost of adopting this method of disposal. If carried out properly, this solution can have a huge impact globally since everyone benefits from this—companies manage to earn their profits and waste is disposed-off efficiently. This is useful especially in lower income countries where proper waste management systems are too costly for them to undertake.

With the increase in globalization and interconnectedness of our world, it is not surprising to hear stories like those of Marao Aspai, or the people of Smokey Mountain, whose lives are dictated, for the worse, by the actions of others. Our simple actions can have consequences that span miles across the planet. The documentary, “A Plastic Ocean”, brings to light such a phenomenon, highlighting the importance of accountability for our actions. Through the responsible use and proper disposal of plastic, we can manage to not only improve our health and wellbeing, but also the health and wellbeing of others.

Shreya Ramchandran is a second-year undergraduate Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University, and a prospective minor in psychology.

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