That’s the line that really stuck with me after attending a Zoom call between the Portuguese branch of the Christian environmental association A Rocha, and the Saint Vincent’s Anglican Chaplaincy in the Algarve at the end of last month.
The video call was attended by more than 100 people from all around the world and was created to spread the word about A Rocha’s ‘Plastic Free February’ project. Holding the event this month neatly coincides with the Christian tradition of giving up something for lent, and I have to say I think it’s an excellent idea, as not only are you doing something that will benefit the planet, but you still get to eat chocolate. I mean, I know what I’d rather give up.
The event kicked off with a video by David Attenborough, and then Chris Wells (the congregation warden at Saint Vincent’s Church in Praia da Luz) took over and managed the proceedings. We heard from various different speakers from A Rocha, including Robert Sluka, Marcial Felgueiras and A Rocha’s environmental education coordinator Isabel Soares about the plastic problem and how rubbish is rapidly starting to overrun our perfect planet. A particular highlight of the evening was when the Reverend Reid Hamilton serenaded us with a cover of the Joni Mitchell song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, singing “they paved up paradise to put up a parking lot”, which was particularly poignant after all the talk we had had that evening of ‘paradise lost’. After that, the floor was opened up to Q&A’s.
I learned quite a few solemn facts that evening that really made me think. For instance, plastic was only invented about 100 years ago and since then the amount of plastic produced has increased exponentially and shows no signs of slowing down. Already this century more plastic has been produced than was last century. It’s hardly surprising. Plastic is cheap, sterile and convenient - it keeps our food from spoiling, makes things like plumbing much easier and our cars lighter, as well as an infinity of other helpful uses - these days it’s pretty much in everything. It has been a miracle solution to a lot of our problems, but it’s gotten out of hand. The trouble is that it really is so damn durable and it never really ‘goes away’, and although we may think of it as ‘out of sight, out of mind’, every single piece of plastic ever produced is still around somewhere in some form or another.
It’s like one of the speakers the Reverend Dave Bookless, who I hope will forgive me for finding it amusing, does in fact have ‘a book’ called ‘God doesn’t do waste’, explained: God made all his creations ‘infinitely recyclable’, but unlike animals and plants that just break down and go back into the earth, plastic doesn’t ‘break down’ - it just ‘breaks up’.
Most of the world is blue and inevitably the majority of all plastic finds its way into our oceans, and Chris Wells drew everybody’s attention to a study that estimates that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. What a scary thought, and inevitably the two will get tangled up together. This happens frequently, and I’m sure we’ve all seen those terrible pictures of sea birds with plastic wrapped around their beaks. But it’s not just that - it means that everybody will start to become ‘part plastic’. Whales for example collect masses of the stuff thinking its krill, and how can a poor old sea turtle be expected to suspect that a floating plastic bag isn’t anything other than a delicious jellyfish?(Except perhaps that it doesn’t have its usual tangy zing to it.) The abundance of rubbish makes it highly likely that marine animals ingest it by mistake, and because it’s then impossible to digest, it stays in their stomach forever, sometimes not leaving any space for any actual food and they starve to death.
Even we can’t escape ‘becoming plastic’. As Reverend Bookless said before, “plastic doesn’t break down, it breaks up”, and the oceans are also filled with tiny little pieces of what’s called ‘microplastics’. Microplastics result from things like water bottles being constantly exposed to sunlight as they float about endlessly on the ocean surface, the UV radiation causes them to leech off these almost invisible plastic threads. Tiny things like zooplankton then eat these little bits of plastic, small fish eat zooplankton, and of course, big fish eat little fish. Thus, it makes its way up the food chain and lands on our plates too.
Reverend Bookless made it clear plastic isn’t inherently evil, like most revolutionary technology it’s how we use it that’s the trouble. The real problem is single use plastics and this is where we get back to that killer line, ‘How can something disposable be made of something indestructible?’. So that’s why A Rocha are encouraging people to take part in this challenge and attempt to go plastic free this Feb. This is of course a lot easier said than done, as most things in the supermarkets are wrapped in plastic of some form or another, and so they are also encouraging people to document their endeavours either by video, or to simply write them down and send them into: email@example.com. This way they can see what difficulties people come up against, brainstorm - and spread the word about any possible solutions.
A Rocha’s top-tips for making it through the month include not only bringing your own bags for your shopping in general, but going a step further and bringing your own cloth bags for your vegetables and bread as well. They also say you should avoid double packaging (that’s things like biscuits that are wrapped up in plastic twice), try to buy multi-use detergents, and of course, buy products in glass wherever possible.
A documentary they recommended we watch on Netflix called ‘The Plastic Ocean’ ended by saying, “Knowing about the problem is the first step, from knowing comes caring and from caring comes change”. After all, us humans are pretty damn smart when we put our heads together, so it’s great that we are all talking about the problem. It can all seem pretty overwhelming when you look at the scale of the plastic pollution, and you wonder what ‘little old me’ could do to make a difference. But just as the Zoom call was coming to a close, one lady reminded us of another great line: “It’s just one plastic straw, said 8 billion people”. All we can ever really do is change ourselves, and if we all do our little bit, then who knows what could happen.
Throughout the meeting there was much talk of those famous 3 R’s: ‘Reduce, Re-use & Recycle’, but there was also a 4th that I hadn’t heard before: ‘Refuse’. Obviously it’s important to try and lobby the government and big corporations to stop producing so much senseless plastic. But after all, they only produce what they think ‘we’ want, and if we the consumers stop buying it, that would be a good place to start.