Tue | Dec 6, 2016

The problem with plastic

Published:Monday | March 30, 2015 | 12:10 AMDr Michael Abrahams

It is hard to imagine life without plastic. Because of its low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility and impermeability to water, it is extremely popular and useful.

Two hundred and twenty-five million tons of plastic is produced every year, and more of the material has been produced over the past decade than during the whole of the last century. Approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, more than one million bags per minute.

Plastic has helped to make life easier for many of us on the planet. The problem, however, is that when we have finished using our plastic products, they often end up polluting land, fresh water bodies and oceans.

Ten per cent of discarded waste is plastic, with enough being thrown away to circle the Earth four times. America alone discards more than 35 billion plastic water bottles every year. Unfortunately, plastic usually takes 500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate, and in the meantime it wreaks havoc on the environment.

There are 165 million tons of plastic in world's oceans, with more than five trillion pieces afloat. One million sea birds and more than 400,000  marine mammals perish annually as a result of plastic, and more than 267 marine species are affected by entanglement (which can cause injury and starvation), choking and digestive tract obstruction or trauma.

Also, nets can drag along the seabed and damage coral reefs. As the plastic breaks down, toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and polystyrene are released, adding a chemical dimension to the pollution, which also has a deleterious effect on sea life, as well as on humans who ingest seafood.

In dumps and landfills, these and other toxic chemicals can also
be released into soil and groundwater, contaminating them, while micro-organisms break down plastic to release methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. And plastic can pose a risk, even in our homes, as heating plastic containers can liberate BPA into our foods and beverages with potentially damaging effects.

In Jamaica, we suffer from two other issues resulting from plastic waste. Our anti-litter laws are not effectively enforced and we have no organised plastic separation, collection or recycling programmes. Consequently, plastic and other debris accumulate in drains, contributing to flooding and water stagnation, with the latter setting us up for mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and chikungunya.

In addition, with the poor management of our dumps and the occurrence of frequent fires, large amounts of plastic will burn, liberating the toxic gas carbon monoxide, and carcinogenic compounds such as dioxins and furans into the atmosphere.

What can we do to reduce the impact of plastic pollution? A lot. We can reuse shopping bags and bottled water bottles, use cloth bags for shopping, carry reusable utensils and refuse straws and disposable plastic cutlery, especially when taking food back home or to the office where cutlery is already available.

We can decline bags at shops if we are only purchasing a few items which can be carried in our hands or if we travel in vehicles that are parked nearby. We can organise and volunteer to take part in beach clean-ups. We can carry plastic bottles or arrange for them to be transported to collection sites for recycling, and advocate for the establishment of more sites, which are sorely needed.

One of the most important things that we can do is to spread the word, especially among our youth. We have to empower ourselves with a waste minimisation and recycling mindset. Our well-being depends on it.

Visit The Jamaica Environment Trust's website (www.jamentrust.org) or call them at (876) 960-3693 for information on bottle collection site locations and recycling, or carry your bottles to their office at 11 Waterloo Road, Kingston 10.


- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.