I think we’ve all been holding our breath to see what 2018 might bring. Confusion, my trusty Guardian says, was the defining mode of 2017, and heaven knows we’ve had enough of that this last 30 years.
However, four days into 2018, there’s already one serious gamechanger on the table.
The Chinese government’s autocratic ban on its country’s mass importation of the rest of the world’s garbage will force individual nations to face one of the world’s most intractable problems.
At very least, new solutions and more robust debate will have to arise, probably both inside China (which will almost certainly have to beef up domestic systems to provide the materials for its own manufacturing industry) and in the global market.
The end of the former, nicely out-of-sight solution to global society’s thrall to plastic could push individual countries to tackle wasteful, disposable lifestyles at the source by forcing plastics and other disposable manufacturers to take responsibility for the environmental damage caused by their products throughout their whole life cycles.
We embraced plastics 50 years ago. Beglamouring us with nylon underwear, creaseless fabrics and lurid colours, the ubiquitous substance has been making fortunes ever since.
It’s touted as a global addiction but over the years, home-makers have periodically risen up in fury at the rise and rise of packaging and cheap-knock-off plastic versions of vital items that once lasted a lifetime but now last barely a week.
But even as great ribbons of floating janitorials, fast food forks and distressed wildlife stretch through the environmental paradise that was the West Indies, the pernicious influences of industry lobbyists including the American Progressive Bag Alliance rocks up anywhere citizens move to legislate against wretched single-use plastic bags.
Of course they do. The giant single-use bag industry is worth around $125 million a year in California alone and a few million will buy you a 800,000 signature petition that will lock any such legislation in red tape for years.
I must have left a plastic scrubbing brush on the deck of my boat months ago. When, under the midsummer sun at the weekend, I reached to put it away, it sprayed neat 3mm-long white filaments all along the scuppers.
An unwary bucket of water sluiced on the hot deck and the filaments, half way to microplastic already, would last in the sea for another 50 years, whether or not they got ingested by marine life (and, eventually, some local fisherman’s family).
My ship’s hefty old life buoy is kept in the foc’sl since I hesitate to have it on deck on the grounds that it would either knock out any unfortunate crew who had gone overboard or, more probably, sink, taking him or her with it.
After which, it will apparently last 80 years as plastic soup, as will any old shoe sole. The omnipresent plastic drink bottle will still be around in the year 2468; every scrap of monofilament fishing line and every disposable diaper 500 years.
As an island community attuned to sustainable futures, we torture ourselves with these sorts of thoughts.
In its heyday (before the contract was handed as a plum during the Auckland amalgamation of 2010 to the local offshoot of the Waste Management conglomerate), the Waiheke Waste Resource Trust was baling and exporting well-sorted plastic that commanded a premium price, paid good wages and justified the work.
It had the enthusiastic support of a willing and proactive community and islanders ‘taking their tops off’ referred to each of us removing the caps from plastic milk bottles for recycling, not over-enthusiastic sunbathing.
Those days are long gone, and returns had been plummeting for even high-quality recyclable plastics since then. However, we are still trying for models to take us forward from the ‘straight to landfill’ option and have a thriving Waiheke industry in bespoke cloth bags, while organisers of the Bring Your Own Bag campaign have also persuaded Australian supermarket giant Countdown to run a successful pilot for stopping the supply of single-use plastic bags to customers.
The next target is the ubiquitous plastic water bottle, used once and next seen in an oceanic gyre near you, whether you are in the Hauraki Gulf, the Galapagos, the Caribbean or Norway.
The confusion of the now defunct 2017 must be put to good use; the UN and individual nations grasping the nettle of opportunity that could only come from such a dictatorial decree in powerful China, unhampered as it is by the failing rags of democratic representation that bedevil western decision-making.
Numerically thinking, it’s only a tiny fraction of us that don’t want the bother of a heritage in which every one of the seven billion of us is valued as part of the magnificence of the exuberant, diverse creation we inherited.
The cure for confusion is easy.
Think of the future we want for our civilization, share it with someone else and hold it fiercely.
Confusion and limp-wristed political expediency can not exist in that space.
I’d also suggest you source your own fabric BYO shopping bag while you’re here.
• Liz Waters