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Plastic Pollution in Perspective

We are all familiar with photos of pristine beaches polluted with plastic waste. These are usually accompanied by an exhortation to ‘reduce our use’ of plastic to reduce pollution. Indeed, virtually every Brand owner and supermarket who replaces plastic with some alternative material (usually paper or board) claims this change will ‘help reduce plastics in the ocean’.

These photographs show at a glance why this is nonsense. Both St Lucia and Barbados, have facilities for separating plastic waste and they also both have organisations, public and private to manage plastic waste recycling. The major difference is that Barbados has had a deposit return scheme (DRS) for bottles since 2020 whilst, St Lucia does not intend to introduce theirs until later this year.

As a consequence, the first photograph, taken Quayside in St Lucia, shows the local taxi drivers have developed their own ‘waste disposal facility’. They simply throw waste into the harbour where the heavier items, such as glass bottles, sink beneath the surface to become ‘sea glass’ (more about this later), whilst plastic floats. Eventually, a tropical storm comes along, and a stormy sea takes all the plastic waste away to be dumped on a beach elsewhere in the Caribbean. At some point, it will be photographed, as it disintegrates, which will demonstrate just how harmful plastics are to our environment!!  

Contrast this approach with that of our friend William. This photograph was taken just 48 hours later in Barbados. William gets just 10 Carib cents per bottle, around 4 pence. Not a lot of money but sufficient to make it worth his while. Particularly as (according to him) he can revisit the same ‘waste’ hotspots and fill his supermarket trolley week after week from where the tourists, and some locals, leave their rubbish.

Meanwhile, the UK Government continues to ‘consult’ on introduction of a deposit return scheme (DRS), whilst Scotland already has legislation in place. These schemes demonstrate beyond doubt that plastic is not an environmental problem, but people are!

Plastic Pollution in Perspective

All the bottles shown in these photographs can be recycled, not once or twice, but up to 25 – 30 times. Thus, they have a value environmentally, as well as financially. Yet, not just in the Caribbean, but all around the world we see plastic bottles, along with their glass counterparts, (as well as aluminium cans) thrown away and left to litter the countryside. In these circumstances, what is particularly galling is the anti-plastic campaigns that single out ‘plastic pollution’. According to Google, a glass bottle thrown away will take, 4000 years to decompose. A plastic bottle 450 years. Yet, in reality we know that a plastic bottle left exposed to the elements will decompose and ‘disappear’ in just 2-3 years. Meanwhile, an aluminium can will (according to Google) take around 460 years to decompose.

Thus, the evidence of our own eyes tells us that litter from glass bottles and aluminium cans lasts far longer than plastic, nevertheless, the media regularly feature ‘Plastic Pollution’ stories. Which is why the public somehow believe plastic litter is the most unacceptable.

Whilst this speed of disintegration cannot be viewed as a benefit for plastics, it suggests that the anti-plastic rhetoric from the BBC, media, and others, has distorted our perception of plastic waste. As these photographs highlight, plastic pollution has nothing to do with the material. It is the attitude of the people that is different. Plastic is lightweight, low cost, infinitely variable in its uses and does a wonderful job of preserving and protecting our food. But, all these benefits are obscured by the media (led by the BBC), which would have us believe that somehow plastics are bad for the environment. This is simply untrue, its human behaviour that contaminates our environment, whatever the material.  

Plastic Pollution in the Oceans

Generally, we are given an equally distorted view of plastic in the world’s rivers and oceans. In truth, no one has any idea of the actual volumes, but we do know discarded fishing gear, along with the major polluting nations of China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are the largest contributors. These countries dump all types of waste in the oceans, but plastics float and the rest sinks! The 44 nations of Europe, including the UK, are calculated to contribute some 2 ½ % just of ocean plastics, again mostly discarded fishing gear.

If we accept the most common estimates of 8-10M tonnes per year of ‘plastic pollution’ in our oceans. Contrast this with the estimated 80 million tonne of toxic chemical waste dumped. Or indeed, the 1 billion gallons of sewage, mostly human excretions containing bacteria, viruses, and pharmaceuticals, which are a biohazard to aquatic life of all kinds. Unlike plastic, both chemicals and raw sewage are toxic, whilst there is no evidence to suggest that plastic waste is toxic.

Therefore, we know the damage and contamination of the aquatic environment and its residents from toxic chemical waste, along with raw sewage far exceeds any that is done by plastics. Yet, how often do we see Greenpeace, Helen McArthur, and the anti-plastic cohort of environmental pressure groups, condemning the ocean dumping of Chemicals or Raw Sewage. Could it be that plastics are a ‘soft target’ that gains them instant publicity and more subscribers to fund the salaries of their 2,500 employees? (including Greenpeace 2 UK joint MD’s @ £90K pa each).

Whatever their reasons, it is apparent that the campaigns against plastic both on land and in the oceans are totally disproportionate to the scale of the problem, compared to the aquatic life killed and damage caused by chemical and human sewage. Whilst this doesn’t justify plastic pollution, perhaps it’s time we got this problem into a more realistic perspective.       

As ever, I welcome your views on any of the items raised, and why not join me on LinkedIn for more regular updates.


1 Comment

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Stephen Martins

DRS is nothing new in Barbados. The glass bottles have had a return value for many, many years. It's great that the plastic bottle has been included. Unfortunately, not all is well on the island though. Single use plastics for catering were removed in 2020 as well, so food outlets, hotels etc have all moved to "Boidegradeable" alternatives. Only problem is that there's nowhere on the island to treat this material type. What's worse is that the general public are ill informed and think they can dispose of this anywhere as it will degrade naturally (which it will not)

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