The battle for Planet Earth

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    In my first editorial of the New Year, I buoyantly discerned a seachange we might hope for as China banned imports of the globe’s plastic trash.  Individual countries (including China) repurposing well-sorted plastic waste within their own borders sounded like our sort of thing.

    Within days, however, it was obvious that global responsibility for the plastic that scientists warn already risks “near permanent pollution of the earth.” wasn’t about to happen easily.

    It was also obvious that – when it comes to our wasteful habits around omnipresent plastic – the battle to save Planet Earth is both more urgent and far more dire than we had been admitting to ourselves.  Worst hit by humanity’s toxic trash, the oceans are the most vulnerable, being some sort of God-given commons for which no-one is responsible and that – sinfully – no-one is monitoring, though awareness is building.

    Three months into the current Volvo round the world yacht race, those of us mesmerised by its magnificent sailing spectacle and footage that recreates the drama of clipper ships and round-the-Horn seamanship are also treated to boats blazoned with names like Turn the Tide on Plastic. 

    That team’s guiding mission is to amplify the  United Nations Environment’s ‘Clean Seas: Turn the Tide on Plastic’ campaign throughout the eight months of the race. As do other contestant yachts.

    Waiheke lays some claim to Conrad Colman, this year commentating the race but whose single handed, shoestring Vendee Globe campaign last year included advocacy for renewable onboard energy innovation and awareness of environmental issues.

    The culture and intentional highlight on the dire state of the world’s oceans was also embedded by the Volvo ocean race committee itself which is endorsing the United Nations Environment’s Clean Seas: Turn the Tide on Plastic campaign. As they said, ‘the ocean is not a bottomless pit for our waste’.

    All a good start, you say?  Consider that headlines that same week said a $180bn investment in plastics factories is feeding the global packaging binge and has the capacity to increase world production by 40 percent.

    Driven by infamous corporations like Exxon Mobil Chemical and Shell Chemical, the proposed facilities are often inserted into poor communities like the Niger Delta where hapless communities find themselves locked out  in any real terms of jobs and afraid for their environment. 

    Of course the dark and lucrative alliances between fossil fuel companies and the plastics industry would fight back, but is annoying to find outselves locked  into decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realising we should be using far less of it.

    Meanwhile, an Iceland supermarket is going to plastic-free packaging in five years, with 80 percent support from its customers. 

    On Waiheke, our track record with sorting recyclable plastics was legendary a decade ago and our beaches tell us a daily story.

    Low pressure and king tides a fortnight ago had the coast brimming and seawater doing what it does – it floats things.  On our western coastline, upside down dinghies floated away,  many of them derelict, their plastic powdery and  chipped.  Logs you’d never associated with floating and bristling with rusted iron spikes nudged themselves out of the sand and set off on the outgoing tide.  

    A 14-footer, stripped of its gear and abandoned more than a year ago on our beachfront, also took itself off,  quickly sinking to sea level and gradually picking up speed, lethal as a half tide rock.  Turning out some warps and rowing out a kedge anchor to at least keep the hazard in one place until the weather went down, we established that in a weather emergency it takes Auckland Council 45 minutes to answer the phone and that they may – but probably don’t – have any contractors to deal with such situations.

    Local friends, walking Whakanewha Beach in the aftermath, were disconcerted when the bags they had brought to pick up the inevitable rubbish were barely needed.  Whole bottles were rare.  Most of the weathered plastic detritus was already ground down to smaller pieces. 

    The problem is fairly simple. We rely on plastic too much and value it too little. 

    I haven’t yet worked out how, as a consumer, I can signal my opinions to Exxon and Shell, although gradually replacing every two and four stroke convenience with their rechargable equivalent will at least enable research and development. However, awareness of single-use plastic containers, right down to choosing glass Marmite jars, is already impacting my shopping choices. 

    Those disgusting supermarket black polystyrene trays are long gone (the butcher is good), but every shopping decision seems suddenly to come with renewed intentionality around a vegetable garden, the folly of being too busy for home cooking and the ubiquity of bottled water in a country where – as our former prime minister so arguably said – the stuff is free. 

    Consumer market forces may be more effective than we know. • Liz Waters

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