By: Bonné de Bod
June is a special month. There is a real physical shift in climate as winter settles in. Gone are the days of early morning dew and instead we are greeted with a dawn frost in our gardens. Staying warm is at the forefront of our minds, so the last thing we think about is the natural environment. But June is globally dedicated to the environment, so we don’t really have a choice but to take notice. We have World Environment Day, World Oceans Day as well as a World Day to combat Desertification and Drought. All of this in one month, so it was aptly dubbed World Environment Month.
This year’s theme is Beat Plastic Pollution, and most newspaper and magazine articles as well as TV shows are painting a doom and gloom picture. Scientists say that we are drowning in the stuff with eight billion tons of plastic on the planet. The ocean is choking and by 2050 plastic will outweigh the fish in the seas. Imagine that!
Being an environmental journalist, I guess I’ve always been aware of plastic’s impact, but it was during a story I did for the SABC where my eyes were really opened. A sea turtle washed up on the beach near Durban and a group of marine biologists decided to dissect the turtle to determine the cause of death. When they opened the stomach the first thing I saw was a piece of a plastic bag followed by a bottle top lid and then a balloon. Not what you’d expect to see inside an ocean creature. But jellyfish, plastic bags and balloons all look like food to a hungry sea turtle. And even if they could tell the difference, once they’ve taken a bite they can’t spit it out because of their ‘thorny’ throat. Turtles’ throats are lined with spiny projections all the way down to their stomachs which protect them from jellyfish stings. (I can’t resist getting a mention of rhinos in somewhere, and these projections are made from keratin, the same protein substance in our hair and nails and in a rhino’s horn.)
Ultimately, it’s not just about the animals however, and having a proper functioning ocean is also critical to our survival. The breath you’re taking right now actually comes from the ocean. Scientists have agreed that there’s oxygen from ocean plants in every breath we take, with the ocean supplying 70 percent of the world’s oxygen. Enough statistics to make us depressed for a while, but it’s obvious that we need to change our actions, not just for life under the ocean but for all life on earth … ours included.
Eighteen years ago, also in the month of June, we had our worst environmental disaster right here on our coastline. The MV Treasure oil spill occurred on 23 June 2000, when the ship sank nine kilometres off the coast of South Africa – between Robben Island and Dassen Island – while transporting iron ore from China to Brazil. The ship was carrying an estimated 1,300 tons of fuel oil, some of which spilled into the ocean, threatening the world’s largest African penguin colony. But the spill resulted in one of the biggest bird rescue missions ever undertaken. Volunteers came from all over to help and 90 percent of the oiled birds were cleaned, rehabilitated and released. What an incredible story of turning something truly disastrous around! I was still a teenager when that happened but it must have been an incredible story to report on. Another great turn-around, probably the greatest of all, was the ozone hole revelation. Al Gore, in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, highlights it as the reason why we can positively reduce and maybe even stop climate change. Both events happened some time ago, but it’s important to note that they worked because at the heart of it, people came together to force a positive reversal. Either in the form of volunteers in the MV Treasure Oil Spill or in the form of countries and companies phasing out chemicals used in refrigerators, aircons and aerosol cans. So if we look at our track-record we can certainly do the same with plastic.
I always feel overwhelmed and most of all guilty when I read the long lists out there of how to live a better life for the planet. It’s so daunting and I end up not implementing anything. That is the last thing I want when you’ve finished reading this article, so I’m going to make it very simple and actually doable, because even I do them. Plastic is part of our everyday life and I think it is unrealistic to think that we can do without it completely, but we can definitely close the tap to single use plastics. I am sure most of us are comfortable buying and using plastic because it’s recyclable but what we’re finding out is that a lot of plastic isn’t actually recyclable and that if we do have plastic in our lives, to use them as many times as we can before we throw them away. Straws are taking the heat right now – even the Queen has banned them on all her properties – and that makes sense as they get used once and then thrown away. While there are bamboo options out there, I must be honest, that’s going to be tough for me to carry around, rewash and remember it for my next smoothie at the gym. I am choosing to take my own cup to the gym and get my drink that way. It doesn’t seem like much, but it certainly makes me think of the turtles when I do it.
Another practice we should all change is how we use plastic bags. I used to pay for plastic bags when doing grocery shopping and to make myself feel better, I’d wash them out and try to reuse them for something else. Then I discovered the reusable bag being sold at check-out points and I now have a collection of various wildlife themed ones that I use for a whole lot of other things and not just grocery shopping. They’re especially handy on a film shoot when I need to have something close by when we’re on the run!
These small changes may not seem like much and it always feels like we should be doing a lot more and a lot bigger things to save the planet. But doing a little goes a long way, and who knows, you may find your own way of kicking the plastic habit that you can share with others and start a trend or talking point.