Monday, May 27

Drowning in a sea of plastic


THE latest miscreant on the who-murdered-the-planet list is the seemingly humble drinking straw. The drinking straw, so the activists tell us, is something the world can do without. At first glance, it seems a reasonable choice. For, let’s be honest – who needs a drinking straw?

Bedridden hospital patients have been given their broth and milk drinks through thin rubber tubes for quite some time, but even if they now use plastic I’m sure nursing procedures account for less than 1 per cent of all drinking straw use. The rest of straws are dipped into ice cream sodas, into fancy sundaes, and trendy cocktails, or into bottles and boxes, which are easier to empty by straw.

About the one thing that’s difficult to consume without a straw is fresh coconut water, unless you are prepared to tip the neatly cut nut out over a large jug or basin.

Originally, a drinking straw was meant to be quite simply a straw, the stalk of a grain plant like wheat or padi. You cut it with a sharp knife, between the nodes, and there was your drinking straw. No plastic involved.

The modern plastic version of the drinking straw is of course much more convenient. Unlike the wheat stalk, it won’t crush and crack if pressure is put on it. It can be produced and marketed in millions. It comes in lots of pretty colours and patterns, it can have gracefully bent swan-necks, and it’s oh so cute!

But also, oh so unnecessary. A drinking straw is inevitably thrown away after one use; it would be most unhygienic to keep and reuse it. But look at the thing, so thin and small – surely one drinking straw is a very small item in the huge rafts of plastic that drift around the world’s oceans (and are swallowed by hapless marine life)? Well yes, that is so, but one billion drinking straws are rather a different story. And if drinking straws are the villain of the hour, the main components are well known to be larger, softer pieces of plastic.

Like wrappings.

Two elderly people, living frugally in a modest apartment manage to fill at least one smallish bin with rubbish every day. No, we don’t toss out lots of coconut husks, maize leaves, and durian shells – what fills our bin is mainly plastic, and a certain amount of carton. Not supermarket plastic bags – I carry a stout calico bag when I go shopping. Our bin is full of plastic that infiltrated the happy home as wrapping materials.

It is becoming possible, in fact it’s thought ‘cool’, to take a bag when shopping. Most supermarkets no longer instruct their staff to pack all merchandise in their own branded plastic bags, even over a customer’s objections. “So the guards can see you’ve paid, madam!” was the reason given, to distinguish honest folk from shoplifters apparently.

But besides the bags the shopping goes into, a huge number of items are already pre-packaged in plastic. Plastic bags, plastic tubes, moulded plastic containers, cartons with rigid plastic bubbles encasing toothbrushes, scissors, superglue, dishwasher detergent, shaving tackle … you name it, it’s packed in plastic.

I am aware that I can’t stop the plasticification of the marketplace all on my own. But there’s one small things we could do, right here in Kuching – stop packing eggs in moulded plastic pods.

Eggs used to be packed in papier-maché pods, locally produced from recycled newspaper. Now that’s the way forward. Go back to the future with our eggs. No more plastic packaging, all eggs to be sold in cartons from Feb 1 onwards, and no chickening out!

Great two-in-one victory! … Recycle Old News and Reduce Plastic Use! … Kuching Saves the Planet! … Eco-chooks lay Eco-eggs in Eco-boxes! … and so forth. Let’s hope we get some good headlines for the effort; I’ve seen less effective projects praised to the skies on TV.

There’s no need to stop at eggs, once the new fashion has caught on. Think of all the things that are packed in shape-moulded plastic, and figure out a way of using papier-maché instead. I’ve seen sets of cute tea-cups with a matching teapot, nicely encased in plastic beds. Tall wine glasses are similarly packed, in gold-coloured plastic no less. Anything breakable, for instance the glass bottles containing health drinks like chicken or fish essences, could easily be packaged in papier-maché or carton casings.

Change is always difficult to start with. When our grocers stopped measuring katis of sugar, flour, and rice into brown paper bags, I bet some people grumbled. The old man who used to sell buan leaves to the fishmongers and vegetable sellers suddenly saw himself out of his small job when plastic bags took over. He sold bundles of bondong strips too, for tying bundles of veggies and the like – here, too, he lost his meagre income to plastic.

At the industrial end of the story, large producers had to buy machinery to produce specialised plastic casings for their merchandise. After some initial problems, their packing routines and machines were all geared to plastic. Sixty or 70 years ago plastic started to make a huge change at all levels of manufacturing and packaging; today the removal and replacement of plastic will have to do the same.

Unless we want to drown in the stuff, literally!

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