Plastic is an alarming man-made catastrophe, and its abundant presence not only destroys the earth’s environment and oceans but is also detrimental to humans.
Halfway between Hawaii and California lies a mammoth garbage patch in which seven million tons of plastic waste have accumulated and spread.
The patch is nine feet deep and 1.6 million square km wide, or one and half times the size of Egypt. It is a monstrous atrocity in the middle of the ocean.
As one scientist put it, the accumulation is “like dumping a rubbish truck full of plastic in the water every single minute.”
Six decades earlier, the world began the mass production of plastics, and due to its petroleum base plastic is not biodegradable and takes approximately 400 years to decompose.
Meanwhile, ubiquitous plastic packaging, containers, bags, bottles, cups, cigarette filters, take-out cutlery, plates and straws continue to be manufactured and consumed on an enormous scale.
Much of this disposable plastic has now washed up as trash in the oceans. It is said that by mid-century, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish.
How does this affect the environment and humans at large? In the sea, marine animals mistake plastic for food and ingest it, blocking their digestive systems.
In the belly of one dead whale, scientists found 88 pounds of plastic waste in all shapes and sizes, for example. According to one scientist, the plastic trash found in the carcass of the whale was so densely packed into its stomach that it felt as “hard and compacted as a baseball, only many times bigger”.
There was no sign that any food had made it into the whale’s intestines for many days.
This case was not an anomaly either, since sea animals such as turtles, dolphins, fish and birds all suffer in the same fashion.
Bear in mind that humans are in the same boat, too, no pun intended, since they eat fish and other seafood and therefore consume plastics as a byproduct.
Whether they realise it or not, humans are also hounded by plastics as they inhale micro plastic particles floating in the air, consume more of them in food and water, and live with them in personal care products such as facial scrubs and shampoo.
Plastic-based paint on cars breaks down into tiny particles, floats in the air, lands in the soil and water and finds its way into humans. Synthetic rubber, made from a type of plastic, makes up 60 per cent of the rubber used in tyres.
Dust from this ends up in rivers, waterways and oceans. Micro-plastics have even been found in tap and bottled water. The end result is that humans consume at least 98,000 plastic particles each year.
Since all the health hazards related to the consumption of plastic have yet to be identified, many people are still either unaware of the dangers of plastics or apathetic about solving them.
One can only wonder how the world had gone on this long without doing anything about plastic, for it is only recently that the world recognised plastic for what it is and started efforts to limit its production and usage.
This has taken place first by banning the manufacture of plastic products that can be replaced by alternative materials and second by recycling much of the plastic waste that is produced.
If such efforts continue, the world may succeed in putting a dent into this non-biodegradable forever-lasting menace.
Many countries have launched initiatives to ban the use of single-use plastic bags. The European Union has announced it will ban certain plastic products “if an alternative exists” by 2021.
So has Canada. Other countries around the world, such as Kenya, the UK, Zimbabwe and Australia, have all announced that they are phasing out various forms of plastic.
Plastic arrived late in Egypt, but once it did it engulfed us with a torrent of perpetual trash, its outcomes largely unheeded and ignored. Egyptians use 12 billion plastic bags a year, with most of them ending up in the Nile or the sea.
If not, they are incinerated with the rest of the country’s waste, releasing toxic fumes into the air, or they are dumped in landfills forever.
The government has yet to join the banning of plastic bandwagon, but Egyptian recycling efforts are encouraging. The Egyptian Plastic Technology Centre estimates that plastic represents six per cent of Egypt’s waste output, of which 45 per cent is recycled and five per cent reused, while only 10 per cent of the plastic produced globally is recycled.
The Red Sea governorate is the only governorate in Egypt that has initiated a ban on single-use plastic, such as plastic bags, cutlery and cups, in the hope that this will help to protect the area’s unique sea life.
However, unless such a ban is implemented elsewhere in Egypt as well, plastic will continue to seep into the Red Sea area.
There have been other encouraging, though still limited efforts, to overcome the loads of plastic enveloping Egypt.
Volunteers from the Very Nile Initiative have removed 1.5 tons of garbage from the Nile, a noble effort as focusing on cleaning the Nile gains public attention, and the Kefaya Plastic group (Enough Plastic) has also been raising awareness regarding the dangers of plastic waste and its damaging effects on humans and the environment.
One simple but innovative idea to restrict the use of plastics would be to charge buyers for single-use plastic bags at shopping outlets.
A 25-piastre or even costlier charge for every plastic bag one receives, still free at this point, could remind shoppers to bring their own stronger and reusable bags.
The best way to overcome the perils of plastic is to refuse to use it. I am now programmed to carry reusable cloth bags with me when I go shopping.
The helper who assists me in loading my shopping once insisted on placing my shopping in plastic bags first and then putting the plastic bags in my reusable bags.
I refused, of course. Now that he recognises my “odd habits,” he simply puts my shopping in the reusable bags.
I tell myself that this is a start. I have got the message through to at least one person.
*The writer is a political analyst.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Drowning in plastic