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We’re full of plastics

The audience giggled when judge Gloria Diaz asked a beauty contestant a question about the issue of plastic waste, and how she could make a difference in helping clean up the oceans. The audience at the beauty pageant laughed, because “plastic” is a word that has a distinctly derogatory connotation in Philippine culture, used to symbolize a two-faced person.

Plastics—objects, not persons—are gaining more and more negative attention these days. Whether they are thought of as toxic people or as alarming waste, the prevalent message is that they are remarkably bad for the planet.

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The word plastic didn’t always get such a bad rep. Our great-grandparents perhaps used to define the word differently, back when plastic originally meant a material “easily shaped or molded.” Thus, the physical characteristic of plasticity.

A hundred or so years later, we think of plastic as something that is fake or a substitute for the real thing. But plastics are actually made of natural materials. Plastic is a polymer—a material made of chains of molecules. While there are natural polymers such as cellulose, plastics can also be made of synthetic or semi-synthetic polymers. Brilliant men in history learned to lengthen these chains of molecules or rearrange their patterns, making the material moldable or flexible.

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That plastics are a miracle invention is perhaps an understatement. We were born in a world already obviously changed by them, so we wouldn’t know how difficult it would have been had they not been invented. Plastics, for instance, have helped shape a cleaner and more hygienic world. They changed the way humanity enjoyed leisure and transportation. Most importantly, they have significantly reduced the cost of manufacturing most products.

But the Philippines is, as Gloria Diaz punned, full of plastics. Last March, a dead young whale was found in the Davao Gulf. When its body was opened for a necropsy, 88 pounds of plastic was found in its stomach.

Startling images of plastic pollutants litter our social media feeds on a daily basis. These posts include photos of seagulls flying with plastic in their faces, fish eating small pieces of plastic, and islands of plastic trash floating on the ocean. The World Economic Forum estimates that the problem is equivalent to dumping one truckload of contents into the ocean every minute. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation forecasts that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

No wonder the preoccupations of our generation include a war on plastic. Metal straws and recycled fabric are called “radical chic.” I have bamboo straws in my drawer, and I was advertised a bamboo toothbrush, too. My favorite cafe offers me discounts if I bring my own mug. And yes, plastic-shaming has become a thing, too. A grocery store in Canada, for instance, is printing embarrassing slogans on plastic bags to discourage customers from using them.

We are full of plastics. The problem is escalating, but it is, in fact, quite solvable. What makes it impossible to crack at the moment is the fact that the equation involves three variables: the consumers, the manufacturers and the policymakers.

Policymakers have made strides in banning single-use plastics in countries such as Egypt, Colombia and Taiwan. This week, Canada announced it will ban single-use plastics by 2021. Dubai airports have also decided to ban single-use plastics by 2020.

Among manufacturers in the local scene, there may be a bit of progress: Coca-Cola Philippines plans to build a P1-billion recycling facility, and Nestlé is committing itself to 100-percent recyclable packaging by 2025.

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And then there’s us, the consumers. We surely hate plastics, especially in the context of their by-now well-documented harmful effects on the planet. But we really should channel that distaste toward a more personal sense of responsibility—on single-use plastics instead, for instance. Admittedly, abandoning single-use plastics will be a cultural and psychological turnaround for most of us. Unless we commit to this personal change in behavior, though, plastic people will become the least of our concerns, as our environment drowns in the stubborn, near-indestructible material.

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TAGS: environment, Gloria Diaz, plastic waste, plastics
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