Earth's Oceans are 70% of the surface of our planet. And their deepest trenches dwarf our highest mountains. The complexity of life on Earth may be nowhere more richly expressed than in the currents, tides and swells of life below open water. There's some really freaky shee down there we are still only just discovering. But as you know well, also down there is truly freaky evidence of other life – consumer lifestyles.
Human waste always finds its way into the oceans and it has built up to such an horrendous degree, by the end of the second decade of the 21st century it has become the main thing we think about when we even talk about the seas. Plastics and toxic chemicals are so much a part of the waters moving around our continents it is now, in the words of one scientist I questioned, essentially impossible to find any sample of marine life that isn't contaminated with it.
The very cradle of life on Earth is now our biggest landfill site – a global flytipping dump that covers three quarters of the colour of our one home planet. So how the hell do we come up for air?
The seas do fascinate us. But today that wonderous playground for reverent scientists and nautical film makers, that engine of human trade and power, that vast circulatory system of our breathing planet – it’s a system in growing crisis. A system we depend on, in numerous life-saving ways.
In my personal attempt to piece together a complete idea of the human-planet challenge facing us as we look to the future, I’ve been using the UN’s Global Goals – The SDGs – in this first season of Unsee The Future as a starting point for the best working plan we currently have. And the part of the plan they entitle Life Below Water, spells out the challenges we face. As it says up front, it’s a worthy aim to: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”
Their quest by 2030 is to reduce marine polution and protect and restore ecosystems, while attempting to reduce ocean acidification and conserving coastal and marine areas. As part of this web of human-ocean life, they aim to encourage sustainable practices in using the sea, including ending overfishing subsidies and helping smaller scale local fishing business. ‘Enforcing international sea law’ is another interesting component, along with research into the health effects of life in the modern seas.
How on Earth can we dip a toe into understanding the scale of this challenge? And any response.
I’d say, let’s start by taking a mindful deep breath.
New Age music. Ever partake in the 1980s? You’re not old enough. It was originally a sort of gently desperate aural therapy for stressed yuppies and was, at the time, a kind of creative branch of electronic music, that split off into a sort of lifestyle justification of whimsical musical atmospherics as the novel wonders of analogue synths suddenly became arcane and creepy-old to brittle DX7, LinnDrum and Emulator II digital pop ears somewhere around 1985 and floomy-yellow fingerless gloves. Today it’s kind of morphed into spa music, I suppose, but one of the daddies of electronic music’s pioneering years before all this ended up sort of accidentally slipping under the tie-dyed tarpaulin of the term by the mid 90s – Vangelis. Musical author of my all-time favourite film score, Bladerunner, his unique ability to fuse sweetspot melody with washing sonic atmosphere is perhaps unsurpassed to this day – and one of his LPs that is a studio comfort blanket for me on many many mornings is Oceanic.
If nothing else, it shows how much we depend on the sea for our language – espcially in the trade-empowered literary English-speaking islands of Great Britain. For I’d say Oceanic positively washes over you with waves of mood and flowing melody and deep echos of… ohyougethtepoint. It isn’t very current though, I’ll admit.
It opens simply with the most obvious and correct thing this Greek composer could have chosen – the sound of gently looshing waves on a beach. And instantly you are more peaceful. Transported. Carried off to the sun somewhere, drifting among the coral and freediving with singing mermaids and benign sea monsters and clouds of swooping, glinting, silver darts. It does sound a leeetle like spa music. But shaddap. It’s soulfully beautiful. And it might make me weep, if I focus on it for the first time in familiar years and consider the state of the oceans as they really are today.
If you don’t live by the sea, you might not have noticed. The state of the beaches. I do live by the coast, pottering distance from ten miles of sandy shoreline, in fact, in Bournemouth. And having such proximity to the blustery wide horizon is something I am so emotionally grateful for I have never quite gotten around to moving away from it. But beaches the world over are serving up an ever thickening soup of detrius that more and more people who live near them are actively noticing.
In the opening shot of favourite 70s adventure corn The land that time forgot, a salty old sea dog wades into the briney surf breaking in a craggy cove to rescue a bottle. A bobbing capsule with Doug McClure’s voice over in it. If only prehistoric adventure and recyclable glass were still the main things washing up on our coastlines today. Because what is, is a thickening clag of symptom. A choking signpost that something it not working about human production systems. A problem that is already too late to eradicate from the natural world, that is set to truly overwhelm it if we don’t do something.
But, if there’s one thing that might turn the tide of the oceanic pollution problem, then it’s the most prolific human reaction to the sea that does no harm to it at all. The one that Vangelis had. Art.
If the seas do anything for humans, they don’t half inspire stories. Some mighty whales of tales too. Jules Verne’s 20,000 leagues under the seas was nothing less than science fiction set on Earth when it was published in 1869, and when Disney realised Captain Nemo’s mysterious submarine Nautillus ninety years later – while you were playing with your scale toy of Stingray and my mother was smacking her lips over David Headison in Voyage to the bottom of the sea and Jaques Couseau was lifestyling oceanographic science to a captivated world – the Victoriano-steam punk model and sets by production designer Harper Goff went on to haunt the imaginations of ocean moviegoers ever since. From Moby Dick to The Abyss, to Das Boot, to The Perfect Storm ..or simply Jaws, we love the mysterious depths.
But as the depths surrender more and more of the depths of human waste, some artists are actively making work out of it, to make a point.
My home town’s arts festival, Arts By The Sea, does tend to have a sense of ocean culture running through it’s, well, name. But this year’s theme aportioned Gorillaz’ LP title Plastic Beach to encourage a programme of creativity that tries to make sense of the growing environmental disaster off our shores and washing up on them. A way to open up wider human stories of living in the environment of our part of the world with partners such as Sustainable Dorset, helping to connect some of the lifestyle dots. Creative chum of mine Rosemary Edwards, for example, curated A drop in the ocean with local art collective Inside Art for the 2017 festival, in which they hoped to: “raise questions about the effects of our consumerism nature and its affect on the world and future generations. Perhaps allowing us to develop new strategies, ways of living to protect the planet, our home and visions of a new future.” It’s the very job art to pick things up we think we know and make you look at it differently. And even see something blindingly ubiquitous for a crucial first time. It was a kind of haunting testimony to an immediate natural world that is very far from all-natural now.
All these personal creative testimonies help creep in a sense of awareness, and inspire wider expressions of how we feel about what’s happening to our environment. But our artistic responses to the world around us can sometimes create a shift in behaviours so significant, it encourages change. Which is why it is always worth picking up your brush, your pen or your camera and testifying.
You might have heard that broadcast media is dead. Don’t you believe it. The right TV or cinema event can still cause watercooler moments the world over, when well timed. And as such, can still help significantly to change the world.
Film maker, journalist and environmentalist Craig Leeson set out to make a film about the illusive, majesterial, collossal blue whale. An obsession for him since boyhood.
“They look like freight trains. They look like spaceships that travel effortlessly” he said. And I know what he means. I had a perfect little, ironically, plastic model of a blue whale when I was a kid, salvaged lovingly from the gift shop of the eternal Natural History Museum in London. And I used to play with it like an elgant spaceship.
In 2016 he ended up making a film about something else entirely, as he finally got to see them surface and dive in graceful pirouettes of freight train-sized ballet in a regular feeding ground he’d tracked them to. For he and his crew found something else so big, they couldn’t ignore it. The true scale of plastic waste in the oceans.
“We were in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Sri Lanka where there hasn’t been any commercial fishing because of the civil war, the beaches have been closed for up to thirty years. We thought this was a relatively pristine environment” he recalls. Underwater cameraman Doug Alan describes, fresh from the water, what they actually found.
“Floating on the surface a meter below was just this horrible, crappy, emulsified mess of oil and bits of… y’know it’s horrible. And looking through it you could see the tendrils of the net hanging down… it’s certainly one of the most unpleasant dives I’ve ever done.”
The team went on to follow the evidence and make the renouned documentary feature, A plastic ocean, in which this moment of dawning realisation on all of them on the boat that day appears.
“The US alone throws away 38 billion bottles a year. That’s two million tonnes of plastic going into US landfills – and that’s only from waterbottles” says the film. “In this year alone, every person on the planet will use and dispose about 136kilos of single-use plastic.”
“Plastic is wonderful because it’s durable. And plastic’s terrible because it’s durable” Leeson says, sitting on a small waste mountain of of the stuff. “Almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet in one form or another. Plastic production globally this year is expected to be 300million tonnes – half of which we will use once and throw away.”
It’s a film that’s done the rounds of the festivals and been talked about a fair bit. It tells a rounded story of the implications of plastic polution around the world. And Leeson even interviews in it the main man of another wildlife TV production that’s had even more effect on the conversation here in my home country the UK.
David Attenborough’s follow up to the 2001 programme The Blue Planet screened at the end of last year. And it got people talking.
As the Radio Times reported, it ‘shocked viewers’ with its final episode, leaving a series of utterly stunning visuals and insights into marine life with a look at the irreparable impact of plastics in the oceans.
“We are at a unique stage in our history,” says the programme’s revered presenter to camera. “Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet. And never before have we had the power to do something about that.”
The tweets of response listed under the RT article will give you a snapshot of the heartbreak and shock BBC1 viewers felt as one of the sanest, most authoritative elder voices of our times left calmly intoned disaster all around us, just because we all stopped taking any notice of how we were living.
New Statesmen called it “an environmental emergency disguised as nature documentary” and Country Living said it had “triggered an emotional public reaction” just with the story of the infant pilot whale lost because to plastics polution. As they quote Attenborough: “”Today in the Atlantic waters they have to share the ocean with plastic. A mother is holding her newborn young – it’s dead. Pilot whales have big brains, they can certainly experience emotions. Judging from the behaviour of the adults, the loss has infant has affected the entire family. Unless the flow of plastics and industrial pollution into the ocean is reduced, marine life will be poisoned by them for many centuries to come.”
So what are some of the things at stake in the current state of the seas?
The British Plastics Federation, the BFP, issued a statement after the outcry from the Blue Planet II scenes of the pilot whales.
““The BPF wishes to make it unequivocally clear that plastics themselves are not a major source of toxins, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) nor heavy metals found in oceans. This is because they are inherently inert. Plastics are completely safe when in contact with food or beverages, for example, and have to meet very strict requirements set in food contact legislation at an EU level.”
And they go on to question the supporting evidence, or lack of it, for the cause of the infant animal’s death as portrayed in the film.
It’s an interestingly robust statement. Because it defends isolated technical truth at the fairly brazen expense of contextual reality, I would say. Editorial production queries aside, the programme did observe a planet-wide truth – our use of plastics has created an utter catastrophe for the environment. The scale of which our environment has never had to process before. The flexible, cheap, durable, inert brilliance of plastic is why.
Because it’s not just the suffocatingly non-biodegradable nature of all mass-used plastics when they leave the factory that is the point here, it’s the way it’s used and what it becomes afterwards that is the material consequence we and pilot whales alike are left to deal with. The cultural attitude that exploded the market for single-use plastics – well, that’s the cause we also have to tackle. A disconnected convenience of supposedly ‘cheap’ disposability that is not exactly utterly unrelated to the market attitude also driving chemical waste behaviours the world over concurrantly. It’s all linked. And it is costing us nothing less than the Earth.
The BPF’s statement seems dumbfoundingly obtuse, in this light. Doesn’t it?
All this first really began to dawn on me at some of the Dottalks I saw at Bluedot Festival, as I and a possey attended last summer. A wonderful oasis of art, science and human future thinking intertwingling seemlessly under the awe-humbling presence of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, in Cheshire.
Erik van Sebille‘s oceanography presentation was a calmly impassioned sharing of the plastics disaster unfolding in our seas. He simply started with some facts as he’d gathered them: Of the 78 million tons of plastic waste humankind produces every year, one third is landfilled, one third is ‘recycled’ and one third goes straight into the wider environment. But a third of that recycled or downcycled waste ends up in the environment too. And that finds it’s way into the seas. Some five millions tons a year.
Part of his work has been to help map the progress of plastic waste in the seas – the patterns of its drift in ocean currents. This has been done extensively with tracking buoys, and lead to fantastically simple and sobering online resources like plasticadrift.org which simply shows you where all the crap goes from any point on the planet. As van Sebille said:
Plastic, he said, is – yes – pretty benign in itself. But it is made with other materials that are toxic, and it tends to absorb other toxins that also get passed into the food chain as it breaks down into rougher, smaller parts. So the fact that it finds its way into so much marine life is, well… really not good. We’re eating it. We’re drinking it. But what is it?
As A plastic ocean puts it, it’s more of a ‘plastic smog’ that’s out there carrying death, rather than pooling islands you could build a fisherman’s house on in the swirling gyres of the main ocean systems. Some big old chunks of disposeable crap simply filling the gullets of seabirds, yes, and plastic bags suffocating seals and six-pack rings famously disfiguring turtles. But the true deadliness of plastic polution is micro plastics. Tiny stuff. Tiny rough stuff.
Micro plastics basically attract the microscopic particles of other human-made toxins also flushed endlessly into the coastal waters around the world and churned through the whole oceanic system, and turn them into tiny infested pellets of poison – just the right size for virtually every animal in the sea to hoover up into their digestive system. From plankton to pilot whales to… practically anything you might lovingly crack open in a fruit de la mer platter on holiday.
And the chemicals you and all hoping to be still-reproductive life is ingesting there includes things like organo-chlorines and phthalates.
Now don’t look up from your bunsen burner and testily wave that test tube in your tongs at me. I know full well you know what things like organo-chlorines and phthalates are. If I’d had a quid for every time someone’s curtly told me to stop ruddy patronising them about organo-chlorines and phthalates, I wouldn’t be still pitching for new clients and music fans, mate.
But as we all know, organo-chlorines (OCs) are known for their: “high toxicity, slow degradation and bioaccumulation” as America’s NCBI puts it calmly. It’s pesticidal waste, basically – material designed to kill. Remember DDT? Big Yellow Taxi wouldn’t have been quite so catchy if Joni Mitchell had tried to sing its full name – “Hey, farmer, farmer, put away your Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, now…” – but it was dangerous enough to not just attract the ire of eco-folk but get a worldwide ban decades ago. A ban not exactly water-tight since.
Phthalates, meanwhile, aren’t just in the oceans, they’re in, like, e v e r y t h i n g.
It’s a large class of chemicals but they’ve been used extensively to add flexibility during plastics manufacture which means, as Amy Westervelt quotes Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center, in a Guardian article: “The problem with phthalates as plasticizers is that they’re free floating, they don’t attach to the polymer, so they leech easily”. Yes. Out of potentially anything your food comes packaged in. Or has travelled in. Out of anything plastic you may care to lay fingers on. And there is, as we’ve established, a lot of phthalates-leeching plastic in the tossing, rolling, exfoliating oceans.
As Westervelt says: “In the past few years, researchers have linked phthalates to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues” because, on top of everything else, they’re endochrine-disruptive. They muck about with your hormones. And your infant’s. And this is all just from those studied properly so far.
It shows what a catastrophic problem on multiple levels at once our food packaging alone is. Never mind disposeable beach toys and one-use cigarette lighters.
Wrapped, cupped, boxed, bound – your vegetable aisle is a giant clutter of one-use plastic. Like it never was when we were nippers. But, as Packaging Gateway implies, that’s because international grocers are doing more to get their food to their customers in better shape, and losing less of it along the way.
“Trays, wraps and other forms of physical barriers not only protect the food from their environment but also maintain safety and flavour, keep out oxygen and microbes, and make seasonal food available all year. Better transport packaging reduces bruising, crushing and other damage and mitigates the risk of food being thrown away before even arriving at the supermarket.”
There is even such a thing as ‘active packaging’ which attempts to actively encourage the food it’s looking after – a cheery pep-talk, shoulder massage, that kind of thing. Releasing additional anti-oxidents and preservatives, I think is actually the design intention. But given the prevalence of ‘migration’ of microscopic material from all packaging into the food it’s protecting, I don’t much like the sound of encouraging plastics to do this. Especially since food is often up for a chemical fight – as Nura Abdullahi from Kano University’s department of Food Science and Technology puts it: “Food and beverages can be very aggressive products and may interact strongly with materials that they touch. Collectively, they are as good as many of the solvents used in a chemistry laboratory.”
So there’s generally very little ‘inert’ about our food packaging and transportation, at any scale. Heaven forbid our food makes contact with oxygen or doesn’t much like being crated around the world in aircraft and trucks. I want my bloody avocados, mate.
Of course, the problem is that we can’t eradicate packaging for food. Not with global tastes we can’t. I do want my bloody avocados – they’re really good for me. And not, indeed, with basically anything you didn’t pick from your own garden.
As European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment managing director Julian Carroll apparently put it: “For decades, packaging was seen as nothing but waste, a nuisance to be avoided. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Packaging is a technological wunderkind that makes abundance for the masses possible”. The big concern for the food industry has been food waste.
The current altitude-dizzying mountain ranges of global food waste are after all that concern about food waste, then? That’s… a hefty hike around depressing, isn’t it?
Van Sebille at Bluedot concurred that packaging for food is not all bad – “it does help reduce food waste significantly” he said – but it’s the uncompostability of it that pushes it into other chains of waste that end up in the sea. Tons of UK plastic is shipped to the Far East for sorting, outsourcing the problem supposedly, but in fact ending up, he claimed, in the hands of small family subcontractors that filter for items they can sell on before junking the rest in rivers.
“No one solution will sort out the scale of this,” he said in response to a plaintive audience question we were all dumbly thinking: What the freaking hell can we do? “It will take serious activation of a combination of responses – namely social economic solutions, chemical solutions and engineering solutions.”
When I then put my hand up and asked what one thing he wishes he could take back to audiences on land, in those visceral personal moments out at sea, he paused and said straight:
Wow. How to dwarf your daunting problem.
I think we get it.
I was sitting next to a woman on a plane one day. As we approached take-off, I could tell she was nervous. She was clearly doing her best to privately steal herself to be fine with the whole roar of 60,000lb of gas turbine thrust under her seat and the pivoting of 200tonnes of aircraft into the skies. I resisted the urge to grab her hand, and so both highlight her awkwardness and appear almost assaultingly weird in one quick movement. But I felt for her. As the flight leveled eventually, she calmed and evidently felt so conspicuous, she smiled awkwardly at me and apologised. It meant we could do that thing English people are otherwise legally barred from doing – talking to each other as strangers. Only catastrophes like road traffic accidents and apologisingly flushed cheeks can instigate this. Or dogs. Which was an interesting thing, because I noticed something on her arm, and felt I could ask about it.
There is a symbol you may have once seen someone discretely tattooed with. Spotted it on the tube. On a bus. Wondered what it was. A semi-colon. Just that. Often on the inside of someone’s forearm, as it was on this person’s.
“Do you mind if I ask – is that for you or someone else?” I said quietly.
She smiled with recognition and said: “Thank you for asking, it’s for a friend. And a reminder for me.”
Project Semi Colon was launched by Amy Bluel in 2013. It’s a kind of solidarity symbol to open up discussion about mental health. Struggles with which can so easily lead to considering suicide.
It’s a kind of survivor’s signpost. Testimony to lessons hard won, the true grieving cost of our living understood in a personal turning point. Silent support among humans who get it, perhaps. And I wonder whether the Earth herself may need one after this period in human history. I wonder whether we are potentially tattooing her one as we speak.
Our oceans are never going to be rid of plastic. Sorry to ruin the format here. We can’t pin our hopes on resetting the state of the planet, the damage we’ve done already is just too bad. By scale, grade and permanence it’s gone beyond the dismissable by nature. The target for our hopes must immediately lie in mitigation and limitation, with a dollop of faith in nature’s ability to surprise us in the long term.
The thing that is interesting me slowly more, is the emotional connection to the sea people can so easily feel. And the work of ocean storytellers just highlights this.
“The ocean to me… it’s my church. It’s my temple. It’s my synagog, it’s my mosque. It’s where I feel most spiritual. It’s where I go to work, it’s where I go for my enjoyment and where I go to think. And it’s also the environment that challenges me more than any other environment I know” says Craig Leeson in A Plastic Ocean.
Watching films like his and Blue Planet II is quickly moving. And it’s not simply the cinematography and the scores or Atbo’s soothing voice. Simply standing near the ocean can cause deep feelings. There you go, see? Deep.
But it’s emotion that heightens when you get close to its wildlife. When a crew filming off British Columbia for the BBC production found a humpback whale entangled in rope and stayed with it for hours to help get it free, it got to them. Cameraman Rafa Herrero Massieu said: “The most difficult thing was to deal with our emotions, because we could feel the great sadness that the pilot whales transmitted.”
Transmitted. That’s what happens when you short-circuit our culture’s disconnection to the natural world. You ruddy feel it.
When I was asked by great art mates Michele O’Brien and Hazel Evans to join their team developing a performance piece for the Poole Martime Festival, Cargo, I didn’t do so as a salty sea dog. I may have worked on Practical Boat Owner for five inexplicable years while trying to write a space opera, but in that time I never once set foot on a water craft that was actually on the water. It’s only since then I’ve been sailing with mates each year on puttering jollies around the solent. But getting into the old human stories of the port that neighbours my home town, and the cross-generational testimonies of people who depended on the sea, lost all to the sea, were made rich by the sea, deported across the sea, separated by the sea… it ran through my veins with much more emotional depth than a landlubber like me might have expected. And when we told our hyper-real tale on the quayside, amid unsuspecting festival revelers last summer, you could just sense that they simply felt it too.
Not unlike my wondering, in episode 5, whether potential fresh water crises might actually do more to propogate partnership and problem solving between peoples, I wonder if the sea too won’t speak to us the deepest about our currently disfunctional, toxic relationship with our home, and wash open a wider emotional connection to what’s wrong.
When Typhoon Vicente rocked Hong Kong harbour in 2012, six shipping containers ended up in the water, breaking open a load of plastic pellets or nurdles. A big load. Hundreds of millions of these base components of plastic products were quickly swept around the China seas and continue to turn up on its beaches to this day. They coated HK’s beaches like snow. But it did bring out locals to help in the clean up. And this does seem typical to me of how much the beaches and the sea can bring people together.
The solutions to the crisis of our plastic culture will certainly have to be social. Shared widely, deliberately. Kind of relentlessly. From clean-ups to prevention, it’ll come down to you and me putting sufficient pressure on, well, everyone to clean up our practices. Demand changes. You and I definitely hold the key to the hopey-changey bit here. And we’ll have to hold our nerve.
You know the basic drill already – it’s things like consciously refusing plastic straws in pubs. You have to be quick – barkeeps pop those buggers in before you’ve blinked. But a friendly word with the landlord in the local might go a long way to raising awareness and actually changing the quick-draw practice. What happened to stripey Humphrey straws made of paper? (You get a prize for surviving into impossible old age if you understand this reference.)
Carrying a bit of stuff with you, just in case. If your brain has a significant proportion of female consituting it, this won’t be news to you in principle. If it’s weighted more to male, it’s time to step up and get that w*nky man bag you’ve secretly had your eye on; Queer Eye your life a little for the planet, mate. Carry a tote bag folded up on you for sudden stops at the Co-Op, and a ‘keep cup’ – always ready to refuse that disposeable coffee cup as well as the plastic bag. But also, make life easier on a bit of your regular shopping – switch your milk supply to a good old fashioned milkman. Not so old fashioned he’s trying to make a pass at you over the blue-top, you understand, just supplying it to your door in GLASS BOTTLES. Simply sterilisably reusable, not just fully recyclable. And you might be able to ask him directly what the names of the cows are that kindly supplied it. Those polyeth four-litre things you buy every two days that come from a milk supply who knows how far away are on the planet for ever, basically. While you waddle back from the newsagent in your slippers scratching your barnet with a hungover yawn on a Sunday morning.
Try to audit just what plastic you use every day. You may be in a recycling town and already used to putting things in different bins, whiling away the carefree hours sorting rubbish. But it’s worth it as a start. Just find out what your council actually does with the recyk. It’s worth investigating; holding them to account.
Do you have the courage to strip your veg and fruit of its plastic wrap in the shop? If so, do – leave the problem with the supermarket, politely, and help them take notice of whose problem it really is. If not, just pick up the fruit and veg that isn’t wrapped at all. Or is in cardboard. Find out if you have a local supplier of more eco-friendly detergents and whether they will also supply it liquid only, to keep refilling your bottle. This stuff really adds up, when you bother. And I’m barely starting to myself – it’s so insidiously ubiquitous, the plastic lifestyle.
And so it will seem impossible. And will be, completely speaking. But the growing mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is the thing to keep in mind and drum into your kids so robotically and despotically that they quickly hold you to account, the helpful little eco turncoats. Listen to them – they still care, because they still get it, you dead-eyed stress zombie parent.
But here’s a quote to encourage all these little lifestyle switches, as you consider it. From Dave, who runs Terroir on my local high street, described by its team as: “An eco aware global tapas bar with a big nod to doing what we can to eliminate: waste, chemicals, unnecessary carbon trails and all the other challenges the Restaurant & Bar industry face to keep Mother Nature happy.” A business that declares: “It’s all about preserving and enhancing what we have on earth.” I finally got to pop in lastnight for a chum’s birthday and I got talking to Dave for quite a bit. And his headline testimony already was an encouraging one.
Terroir is founded on a very sustainable outlook that sets up agreements with all its suppliers to only supply produce in agreed reusable crates. The only bin they have inside is for food waste, and that goes to composting. They also have no menus, beyond the chalk board behind the bar and the app on guests’ phones, and all the sinks feed a grey water system they’ve retconned into the old Edwardian shop unit to flush its loos. They’re growing a hydroponics section, bubbling away with both plants and fish in it. And the food is, as much as possible, a twist on the ingredients you might be used to.
“We like serving global food made with local ingredients,” Dave said. “So we make hummus with a nice spicey fava bean instead of chick peas, for example.”
It is, he says, a story in progress. But that’s why I think it could quietly do much to help shift attitudes locally – they’re inspired by values about bigger things than their business, but they’re still working it out honestly, from a considered start. “We really didn’t want to put people off with a preach,” he said, of he and founder James Fowler, “we just really believe in exploring this.”
And he added something else interesting: “We’re currently open four days a week. When I go back to the outside world and have to do my own personal shopping the old way, it’s a wrench. It’s weird.”
The reason plastic ends up in the sea is because it finds its way into rivers easily. Just like all pollutants. A long history of rubbish has built up in some truly staggeringly big sites like the 700acre Puente Hills in California, or Olusosun in Lagos which, with the Nigerian captial’s vast expansion to some 21million people, now finds itself kind of in the middle of the city, still accepting an estimated potential 10,000 tons of garbage per day. The list goes on, and the garbage keeps coming. But around the world the dangerous, filthy garbage economy of living on such megadumps and eking a scavenging living from them, is evolving at least, and in a couple of key ways, with some of the biggest names in the top ten trash list now closed.
Recycling is well-established big business globally. But bio-massing electricity generation from all that heat, methane and rotting materials is such a thing also now, the website for infamous Korean megadump Sudokwan is a positive greentopia of smiling children and trees. There’s a new outlook trying to climb out of our rubbish.
But it’s taking a long time for this and recycling in particular to break into your and my imaginations, to truly open up the market. As far back as 1993, Harvard Business school said: “companies can turn building demand for recycled products into a competitive advantage”. Twenty five years later, this is still true – if you and I are prepared to go looking for such products more seriously. More publically.
There is a wide range of stuff we can make from the different types of most commonly used and discarded plastic, especially – duh – things we want to last a while. ‘Plastic lumber’ like picnic tables or benches can be made out of your toughened polyeth milk bottles and your old plastic bags, while your water bottles can even be rewoven into garments. Even polystyrene – styrofoam – can be turned into building materials and a few other things. British Recycled Plastic is just one firm that can give you a quick overview of the useful durable things we frankly should be making a lot of public realm and garden stuff out of. Demand it at Garden Lands on your next trip with your mum.
But it’s not just chunky practical stuff. As Dezeen’s very readably useful article Good design for a bad world says: “Recycled plastic will soon be the only choice”.
They quote Bob Vos and Alessandro Iadarola, founders of sustainable design brand Polimeer, which has a nice website worth checking out: “Working with recycled plastic offers unlimited design opportunities, because of the variety of polymer compounds and processing techniques that can be used. In most cases, plastic can be found on the streets, or you can partner with businesses that like to donate their leftovers for free,” they said. “This abundance of plastic in the environment creates an opportunity for young designers to start thinking.”
And the article demonstrates the willingness of some big brands to explore the materials in more lifestyle goods, and specifically linking it to the story of the oceans. And a new kind of ‘designer plastic’ like Ecopixel‘s would be a very on-mode thing to expensively fit your new kitchen with. Not unlike Terroir’s similar bar tops.
Typical, though, of the drives to take this problem seriously in a more engaging way, is the attitude which tends to go along with many ocean-minded recycling initiatives – sharing. Like Netherlands-based designer Dave Hakkens who designed his own recycling machine for his graduation piece and open-sourced the plans for others to use and then co-exhibit.
There is a world of this sort of thing out there, if you’re mindful to find it. And it’s time, I think, for consumers like me and you to take more conscious notice of the possibilities out there. We should be enabling a market sense for big business to dramatically diminish the production of virgin plastic. While perhaps most noteably pressuring our daily supermarkets to get serious about cutting out plastic and using alternatives in our aisles.
We need to encourage, champion, set-up, explore much more circular economic thinking, closed loop production, proper recouperative processes in our daily living. It’s all doable. Rwanda has banned the plastic bag. Germany has an old-fashioned bottle deposit scheme to recycle plakky bottles.
But what about trying to clean up the oceans or get rid of plastic? Are there possibilities?
Don’t get your hopes up too dramatically. Like carbon capture technology, if we blithely imagine boffins will just make some brilliant machines to clear up all our shite, we will do nothing to address the causes of the problem. Which is yours and my outlook. ..BUT, since this is the hopey-changey bit, it would be nice to imagine some technical support shaping up for our home planet.
Floating barrier technology like the one proposed by The Floating Clean-up could become the kind of things it becomes more normal to find in our oceans. Design student Boyan Slat came up with the idea of floating booms passively attracting trash from the scummy top few feet of the ocean surface when he was just 18, after a dive trip to Greece. Today, after a feasibility study it appears to be a happening thing. And wunderkind – yeah, I couldn’t helpmyself, I went there – Slat now reckons the scaleable system could clean up half of the great pacific garbage patch in five quietly bobbing years.
Then there are endeavours like Marcus Erikson’s, founder of the 5 Gyres Institute in California, to create much more upstream solutions to plastic even getting into the seas in the first place. IE: breaking down the real data about all the places the material is coming from in the first place, to deploy smarter local mechanisms and initiatives to head off the junk at the pass. Erikson and team helped to identify the problem of microbeads in the ocean – those little abrasive tiny nodules put into your shampoo and the like to help exfoliate for the full spa freshness in the shower.
It does really make you wonder what the hell anyone has been thinking about how plastic works, all these decades we’ve been manufacturing the stuff.
So here’s a question: Are there alternatives to plastic? More planet-friendly ones?
Yes. But it’s a bit of a minefield for proper hopey-changey evidence. There’s a whole sector of bio-plastics, but while many of the products out there do degrade, they either essentially only do down to the nano plastic level, still not helping our biggest oceanic content problem, or they take particular industrial processes to break down more safely. What we need are truly compostable alternatives to plastic.
As Nicola Davis reports in a The Upside report for The Guardian, research and development is going into naturally occuring polymers. Things like waterproof coatings made from cellulose or chitosan – not simply compostable but more adhesively applicable than virgin plastic, supposedly.
Or Israeli firm Tipa’s flexible wrapping alternative for food, which they say breaks down rapidly in a home composter. Unlike current food wrap which is apparently three types of plastic in one. Not bio-y at all.
What about going back to a classic then? Cellulose? Cellophane was made from the plant polymer and covered our food for years before it was upstaged by cheaper plastic films. UK firm Futamura are banking their business on compostible packaging like this. And what about the US Department of Agriculture’s development of edible plastic film, made from a milk protein? There are all kinds of alternatives possible, emerging into business opportunities. If the demand rises with the R&D.
But. We’re not going to ween ourselves off the wonders of old plastics and their heavily entrenched production processes any time soon. And we can’t ignore the mess we’ve already made. So, could there ever be a way to actually de-consitute plastics. Actually turn it back into its organic components? It didn’t arrive from a plastic mirror universe like Thor’s plastic hammer. >squeak!<
Plasma Gasification, mate. A ruddy great rubbish death ray. Flash Gordon enough for you? 99% of the known universe is supposedly in that fourth state of energy, physics fans. It’s sortakinda gas in a heavily ionised state – y’know, like the sun – and tech that uses this state has been around for decades for breaking down certain metals in industrial waste, nuking the very bonds of molecular structure so that things like complex hyrodocarbons reform into easier to deal with wastes. It’s often called waste into energy, in fact, where the waste syngas can be used to generate electricity and the solid waste of atrophied slag can be used nice and inertly as building material.
But it’s great challenge has always been the crikey-charlie energy bills and it’s rather, ah, bulky scale. As Wired explored a few years back, there have been experiments over the last 20 years to see if it could be developed for all waste, and Tom Whitton of Pyrogenisis claims in a hopey-changey TEDx talk, the technology could transform our trash problems. But, you know, keep a cool head about the healing powers of death rays; getting the technology as small as shipping container size might begin to look like a solution.
Much less futury sounding, and scary, perhaps the most quietly effective techniques for coping with plastic and other human post-manufactured rubbish may simply turn out to be much more akin to natural drainage techniques, or sustainable urban drainage planning – phytoremediation and bioremediation. Using planting to filter and contain the apparently irredemable mistakes of our leaking waste culture, to begin to damn up the polution of our oceans.
It’s a deep, wide, troubling, but emerging story of the seas, and our connection to them. But story that we must accept has reached a particular narrative moment there is no rewriting.
The mark of our generation has been left. In geological terms, in the blink of an eye. Much like any major accident; we can be pottering about as usual, mind on the mundane, and something changes our life in a split second for ever. Just done. And then we have to come to terms with it and adapt. Live with our scar.
It may be that this scar on the fabric of Earth’s life-web may yet become our collective stripes – the disfigurement we solemnly carry as testimony to the hardest lesson won in human history. The period we woke up to ourselves, and took our proper place in the middle of life on Earth. The blue planet survivors.
Because our story isn’t over yet.
From pollution to more sustainable fishing, the seas are wide with challenges.
Find more facts about Earth’s last great unexplored wilderness.
A National Geographic look at the big systems of the sea.
Meet the team and explore the wider work of the film making team
Making plastic precious
Protecting the seas with intervention and understanding.
Plastic recycling – your questions answered.
Is there life after plastic? The new inventions promising a cleaner world >
Compostible and edible packaging: The companies waging war on plastic >
What to do about throwaway culture >
Futamura’s compostible packaging >
British Recycled Plastics range of durable prodcuts >
Visit the new Southbourne global tapas restaurant and bar.
Discover the floating boom plan to being removing floating waste.
Watch Tom Whitton’s TEDx talk.
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