The plastic pandemic

Published April 20, 2024
Illustration by Faraz Ahmed
Illustration by Faraz Ahmed

When I was a little boy, I would go to the shops to buy snacks that I loved. The shopkeepers would put my snacks and treats in thin plastic bags. I loved carrying those crinkly bags home, swinging them in the air, excited to have something new, even if it was just chips or cookies.

I used to keep those plastic bags just because I thought they were amazing, the colours and the sizes all made me wonder how useful and fantastic they were. Who would have known that little marvel of yesterday would take over the world like aliens from any sci-fi thriller?

Life without plastic is hard to imagine now because it has become an integral part of our existence. Plastic has intruded on every aspect of modern living, from the containers we put our food in to the electronics and clothing that we wear, plastic is found in everything. Its versatility, durability and low cost have made it a universal presence in our lives.

Sadly, using so much plastic is now really hurting our health and the environment. Over the last 10 years, we’ve been using more plastic things that are thrown away after one use, and we’re not getting rid of plastic properly either. Because of that, there is plastic litter polluting our soil, oceans and even the air we breathe. Plastic doesn’t break down naturally, but we keep carelessly throwing it away everywhere.

We are used to how easy and convenient plastic is. But now plastic trash is making a huge mess around the world. Our excessive use of plastic without caring about disposing of it responsibly is causing big problems for the whole planet and all of us living on it. We need to open our eyes and be smarter about making our choices when it comes to using plastic material so that it is not littered everywhere.

Earth Day is an annual event on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection. First held on April 22, 1970, it now includes a wide range of events coordinated globally by Earthday.org (formerly Earth Day Network) including one billion people in more than 193 countries.

It’s time to take a stand against the curse of plastic pollution through the “Planet vs. Plastics” movement by Earthday.Org, which advocates for spreading awareness about the health risks of plastics and discontinuing all single-use plastics. It also pushes for a strong UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution and demands an end to fast fashion. The organisation urges people to join them as they build a plastic-free planet for generations to come!

How bad is plastic pollution?

Over the last 50 years, we’ve been making more and more plastic products. The amount of plastic waste we create every year all around the world is now more than 350 million metric tonnes! This is equivalent to 10 million fully-loaded garbage trucks. The numbers are simply mind-boggling.

A lot of this plastic trash doesn’t get recycled properly. Instead, it gets thrown away in landfills, burned or just left lying around on land, in oceans, rivers and on beaches; data shows that only 15 percent of the waste is used for recycling, (Statista.com).

Let me remind you of the very commonplace that many of you have visited several times, — Clifton Beach. If you go into the shallow waters near the shore, how many of you would agree that you have jumped or screamed feeling something soft and mushy around your legs? You might have imagined that a jellyfish or an octopus had grabbed your legs and would sting you like the ones in the movies. But sadly, that feeling of being held by a marine animal is far from reality. Upon closer inspection, you may have found out that it was a plastic bag, straws or maybe cups floating and entangling around your legs.

Thus, when this plastic waste ends up in oceans, it suffocates marine life. There are hundreds of reported cases of turtles, fish and other animals mistakenly ingesting the plastic material, resulting in immense suffering and death.

Normally, plastic items take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills. But the plastic bags we use in our everyday lives take 10-20 years to decompose, while plastic bottles take 450 years. Moreover, plastic waste clogs waterways, increases the risk of disease transmission and destroys fertile landscapes.

Microplastics — a threat to life!

Plastic is evil in all ways. But if we specifically talk about microplastic, then it is an evil that is hard to spot on. Microplastics are small plastic particles less than 5mm wide (0.2 inches), roughly the thickness of a nickel coin. From the products we eat and use as cosmetics to the clothes we wear, microplastics are found in everything.

Some microplastics are large enough to be seen, while others are so tiny that they are carried by winds and fill our lungs when we breathe. These microplastics also enter sources of freshwater we drink. The health impact of tiny bits of plastic gathering in the lungs, liver and brain is unknown, but it’s almost certainly very risky at some point in life.

Illustration by Faraz Ahmed
Illustration by Faraz Ahmed

How to avoid microplastics

Stop using single-use packaging

Single-use packaging includes plastic straws, disposable coffee/tea/juice cups/glasses and their lids, bottles, plastic grocery bags, food packaging and utensils, plastic wraps and ziplock bags, and many other every day-use items. Instead of these single-use plastic items, opt for reusable alternatives made from materials like glass, metal, bamboo, silicone or paper. If you go out with your mum and dad, suggest greener alternatives and urge them to discard all the plastic from the house. Also, spread the word in your school and colleges, and urge your friends to use eco-friendly things as much as possible.

Avoid microwaving in plastic containers

Most of us heat food in microwave ovens. But perhaps many of you don’t know that warming food in plastic containers, especially in the microwave, makes the plastic break down faster and contaminates your food with tiny microplastics.

Always use a glass or ceramic dish when heating or warming food in the microwave. Plastic containers release chemicals when they’re heated, even if they say they’re “microwave safe,” what they mean by “microwave-safe” is that the container won’t melt, not that it won’t transfer chemicals to your food.

Eat less processed food

I know this can be tough. But with all the recipes and cooking help available on mobile apps these days, you can ask your mum to try making similar or alternate versions of the frozen foods you love. If you show interest in healthier options, I’m sure your mum would be happy to make them, since no parent wants their kid to eat unhealthy things.

Processed foods also include chips, fries and fast food, though they taste scrumptious, they have very tiny pieces of plastic in them. Over time, eating those little plastic bits can make you sick.

Buy cotton fabrics

Did you know that synthetic fibres shed microplastic every time they are washed? Textiles are also one of the biggest contributors to microplastic pollution. It doesn’t apply at your age, but you must be mindful of the stuff you are buying.

Read yourself and also remind your parents to read labels when you shop for clothes, sheets or blankets, and avoid buying synthetic materials — polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex, rayon and microfiber. Instead, get cotton, wool, hemp or linen products.

How practical are you?

So many times you may have heard this being said, “Let’s buy plastic plates and cups so it will be easy to dispose of them!”

Yes, there is no denying the fact that plastic stuff often offer more convenience, and save us from a lot of extra work and expenses. But it is also a fact that for every problem, there is not just one solution, but many solutions. All we need to do is to choose what aligns with our priorities.

So in this case, paper products are an alternative option to plastic. When it comes to grab-and-go stuff, you can keep paper glasses and plates, and can also avoid plastic shopping bags by carrying fabric bags or tote bags when going out shopping.

There have been several write-ups on the topic previously, but how much change have you brought about in yourself? Have you stopped using plastic bags? Have you started using paper or fabric bags when you go to the market? Or how often have you reminded your mum about it?

I’m just reminding you about a simple act that we can all start doing right now. I’m not saying to stop buying packaged items or to stop using plastic cutlery, single-use plastic or plastic water bottles. Just take one simple step to show that you care about this blue marble we call home. Our world is unique like no other. So, if you love something, don’t you care about it? Or do you leave it at the mercy of others?

Every small action adds up to make a big difference. The time to act is now. Let’s all do our part to protect and preserve our beautiful planet this Earth Day and keep the spirits high every day. Our choices today will shape the world we leave behind for future generations.

Published in Dawn, Young World, April 20th, 2024

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