Imagine that you’ve gone over to your friend’s house for a visit. You go into the living room and notice that there are dirty clothes and old papers on the coffee table, a pile of peelings and dinner leftovers in the corner of the room, and the contents of the bathroom rubbish bin on the sofa. Would you be dismayed? Why? For you do exactly the same thing!
It could seem that the level of awareness of environmental problems is so high that there is no need to make anyone aware of, for example, the fact that plastic is bad for the environment. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware that plastic cannot be processed in a way to render it completely reusable. What is more, the material processing itself creates a lot of substances which are harmful for both us and our surroundings. Recent years have seen an ever-growing number of new ideas that are meant to save the environment, many of them related to a reduction in the amount of plastic we use. Sadly enough, the actual implementation of such ideas is still a thing of the future.
At the same time, the number of disposable items in our lives is growing as fast, or maybe faster, as the number of ideas concerning environmental protection. Not only do we spend more and more on items whose lifespan is definitely too short, but we also increasingly often opt for disposable products which until recently used to be reusable. Disposable try-on socks for measuring shoes, which are meant to provide greater hygiene, lingerie designed for the same purpose, plastic gloves used by hairdressers in beauty salons when dyeing their clients’ hair, disposable gloves used to put bread in plastic bags, disposable chamber pots which make parents’ lives easier, as well as disposable grills, aprons, shoe covers used in hospitals or rubber gloves used… well, everywhere; not to mention, disposable packaging which can be made of anything and used for anything, everywhere. And this is just the tip of the rubbish iceberg.
How long is its lifespan…?
It takes about a second to produce one plastic bag and about 400 years for it to biodegrade. An average plastic bag is used for 25 minutes. Every year, an average Pole uses over 450 such bags. If we add this to the data from other countries, the numbers become alarming. And they only apply to disposable plastic bags. After all, we still have plastic drinking straws that need about 200 years to biodegrade, plastic cups, plates and bottles which require about 450 years, and bottle tops which need even 1000 years to fully break down. Although these numbers can be frightening, they are merely estimates.
Only future generations will be able to see with their own eyes the biodegradation of our plastic waste.
There are plenty of plastic items which we use every day. We love them because they are cheap, easy, quick to produce and equally easy to use. After all, once we’ve drunk our water, the bottle lands in the rubbish bin and the problem “disappears”. Sometimes, the bottle is thrown away to a container for waste segregation, and then we do not feel guilty at all, because we have thrown plastic waste into the correct container. So, it is all 100% environment friendly, isn’t it? And what happens next to the bottle? We do not know, but we also do not care. All in all, people who live near a landfill may have an inkling that the waste does not disappear into thin air, but even they believe that the “problem” is caused by the rubbish left by others. After all, they segregate.
Plastic objects are therefore a real challenge for nature in the context of their biodegradation and, therefore, also for human kind in terms of recycling technologies.
Now, how many percent of the plastic waste is even recovered? Only 9% of plastics has been recycled since the beginning of the mass production of plastic items. Another 12% of plastic waste has been burned, and the remaining 79% is currently waiting for us to figure out what to do with it. And there is really a lot of plastic waste around – more than 8 billion tonnes have been produced since the 1950s. The amount of plastic foil we have available is enough to successfully wrap round the whole globe. Some of the plastic waste is collected in landfills, but a lot of it also pollutes the natural environment. For other kinds of waste, the recycling rate is much higher. For comparison: over 50% of paper has been recycled, as well as up to 80-90% of steel and iron. Unfortunately, the recycling process is more complex and difficult in the case of plastics.
Where is all the world’s plastic?
Henderson Island is a deserted coral island located in the Pacific Ocean, part of the Pitcairn Islands, and an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. In 1988, it was included in the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List, and was recognised as an IBA (Important Bird Area) by BirdLife International. However, in May 2017, the media reported a worrying discovery. Henderson Island has become a site with the highest density of plastic waste across the globe. There is no escape from pollution there. On average, there are over 650 plastic items per square metre of the island, which amounts to at least 17 tonnes of plastic waste. All thanks to the South Pacific gyre that brings to the island shores plastic waste from around the world. Your plastic coffee cup may be there, too. Once a pristine paradise untouched by humans, Henderson Island is a perfect example of how significant our impact on the natural environment is, even when the place in question is located hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from us.
Islands of (deadly) rubbish
We pollute some places with plastic waste, and we also create places out of rubbish. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is also located within the South Pacific Gyre. It is a cluster of waste between California and Hawaii which was created by ocean currents. Its area is five times larger than that of Poland, and its mass is estimated to be at the level of 45-129 thousand tonnes, of which 99.9% is made of plastics. Among other things, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge threat to marine animals, because it consists mainly of photodegradable materials that are partially decomposed when exposed to light and turn into dust (microplastics), which in turn become part of the food web of the biosphere. Such undigested fragments of plastic items are a frequent cause of death for marine animals, as they block up their digestive system. Every year, more than a million birds and about 100,000 mammals die for this very reason.
What is more, according to the Ellen MacArthur and McKinsey foundation report, our overuse of plastic will mean that by 2050 the mass of plastic waste found in the oceans will exceed the mass of fish. The latest reports concerning beaches are also disturbing. In May 2018, National Geographic published an article on plastic waste written by Laura Parker. The author referred to the data according to which 15% of the sand in Hawaii, the largest island in the Hawaiian Archipelago, is not actually sand but microplastics.
Out of sight, out of mind
There are no apartments with a view of a rubbish island, which is why the sight of a waste container usually bothers us more than billions of plastic fragments floating in the oceans. We tend to care less for things we do not have to see. Especially when the problem is far away from us, when we believe that we have not contributed to its creation, or simply that it has no effect on us.
Mandy Barker – an aware artist spreading awareness among her audience
Without the awareness of the dangers posed by the current production of plastic objects or packaging on such a huge scale, we will not be able to change the habits which drive this very plastic madness. Mandy Barker, an award-winning photographer from the United Kingdom, knows perfectly well how important it is not only to notice the problem, but also to see it with one’s own eyes. She is not only an artist that creates exceptional artworks, but also somebody who works closely with scientists. She wants to use her work to influence our attitudes and choices, as well as to raise awareness of the pollution of our seas and oceans, and the part we all play in this phenomenon. She showcases the harmfulness of plastics to the natural environment and humans. “Presenting this problem in an attractive way allows me to reach a wider audience,” says Barker.
In her works, the British photographer focuses primarily on the problem of the huge amounts of plastic rubbish drifting in the oceans. She collects plastic waste which she then uses to produce intricate compositions that often depict shoals, plankton, galaxies or constellations. The sense of beauty, aesthetic qualities and positive associations that Barker arouses in connection with her subject matter create immense dissonance in the audience. Plastic waste is turned into a strikingly graceful and delicate art.
Thus, the photographer draws even greater attention to the problem and provokes deeper reflection on the issue.
Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly known animals
The works of Mandy Barker, part of her award-winning series Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly known animals, were presented at this year’s Fotofestiwal – the 17th edition of the International Festival of Photography in Łódź. In addition to photographs, the project includes a diary with samples from field studies on microplastics. In her book, Barker describes the microorganisms which she depicts with plastic waste, using macro photography. These microorganisms do not exist in reality, however, the suggestiveness of the presented photos and descriptions is so strong that they easily move us to reflect on the threats plaguing genuine plankton. The Beyond Drifting exhibition aims also to raise awareness of environmental issues and the impact of humans on nature.
You also have influence – do something!
What can be done to help reduce the amount of plastics produced and, consequently, protect the natural environmental? There are many actions that can be taken. Some of them can be taken by individuals, others by entire communities. It is always good to start with oneself. In the past, people in Poland used to go shopping with shopping bags made of elasticated nets, which are now again becoming popular. The sellers used to pack eggs into paper bags, while milk and cream were bought in glass bottles ideal for refilling.
Such good habits are fortunately coming back, and consumers, who are becoming more and more ecologically-minded, are increasingly likely to follow these trends. Reusable canvas bags are also becoming more and more popular in Poland. This growing trend is connected not only with a “fad” for having a “cool-looking shopping tote” or the obligatory fee which has been imposed on the use of disposable bags this year – it is also linked to the growing social awareness of the problem. We are slowly beginning to realise that we personally have an impact on the environment, that what we do, consume, and produce, affects the climate, animals and the living conditions of other people, especially those from developing countries. Unfortunately, this growth in awareness is a slow one, and the problem cannot be solved just by abandoning plastic bags.
Let’s clear the oceans
You should pay attention to the packing of the products you buy and choose the options which are best for the environment. Choose a cream in a glass jar instead of a plastic container and switch plastic-wrapped mints for the ones sold in cans made of metal. It will bring some relief to both nature and humanity. Some people opt for even more significant steps – they shop at marketplaces or in grocery stores which sell products without disposable packaging, taking their own reusable packaging (jars or cotton sacks) whenever they go shopping. Let’s all change just a few small habits and maybe in a dozen years or several decades we will be able to at least stop the plasticization of the oceans.
The British Council, which celebrates its 80th anniversary in Poland was an official partner of Mandy Barker’s exhibition “Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly known animals”.
Aleksandra I. Kapinos
You can find polish version of this article here.