Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/1/2018 (645 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
One way or the other, our future is plastic. It can either be a hopeful, plastic future that we can shape in the way we want it to go, or it will be a future in which we continue to poison our planet with plastic stuff we never really needed.
At the moment, we can still choose, just as the government of Kenya chose to ban single-use plastic bags — or, more accurately, the plastic bags that blow across the landscape that have no essential use whatsoever.
After all, it doesn’t matter if you use that bag once or twice. It still outlasts you by hundreds of years, before it decomposes into chemical compounds harmful to soil, water and the life that depends upon them.
As garbage dumps go, it was not very big — about five acres, nestled between the new Roman Catholic cathedral and the large parish school in Ngong, a suburb now of Nairobi.
Like other garbage dumps in developing countries, it was also very efficiently managed. A couple of years ago, I watched trucks dump their loads and a dozen women and older children rapidly pick through the trash. Anything edible or with any potential value was removed, trundled away by the men who lurked on the sidelines — and who angrily objected to me taking pictures.
There were two piles that snaked through the dump along the main pathways, however. Each was about 15 feet high. On one side were the plastic bottles, mostly water bottles. On the other side were the plastic shopping bags.
Both piles will long outlast the people who picked around them or the children who walked by on their way to school every day. The local government has promised for several years to remove the dump, but (like here) municipal election promises are not easily translated into action.
The future of Africa is also plastic, in the same terms as our own. Images of horizon-wide herds of migrating animals, the wildlife of exotic safaris, are misleading. That wildlife is confined to small areas where national parks preserve at least some of the animals’ territory from roaming cattle, ruthless development, random tourists and poachers wanting a fast trophy.
Across the landscape, plastic bags blow like prairie tumbleweeds. Small towns and villages are too often unkempt, filled with plastic trash, as locals throw plastic water and pop bottles out the windows of vehicles to be left wherever they fall.
Crossing the Great Rift Valley, where human life supposedly began millions of years ago, I stepped out of the truck in the middle of nowhere to take a selfie with a wild giraffe, the first wildlife we had seen in transit. The plastic iced tea bottle in the ditch at the side of the road sort of ruined the moment… especially when I then realized how many plastic bags were hung in thorn bushes off into the distance.
I have not yet been able to visit Nakuru, the place in tourist videos where thousands of flamingos fly across the lake. This trip, I was told not to bother — because of water pollution, most of the birds have left for another lake, at Naivasha. Seeing the plastic bags and bottles choking the mouth of one of the rivers flowing into Lake Nakuru — and hearing stories of algae blooms and agricultural pollution reminiscent of Lake Winnipeg — it is no surprise the birds did not come back.
As for the science: first, it is a recent problem. I grew up in a world with very little disposable plastic, if any, and somehow we managed to survive. Most of the plastic contaminating our lakes, rivers and oceans was made within the last 15 years — and will last for hundreds more. Just because we have found ways to reuse plastic bags once or twice doesn’t mean they are now essentials for urban life. Nor are plastic cutlery, drinking straws or coffee-cream knuckles.
Second, recycling plastics doesn’t solve that problem. There are too many kinds of plastics allowed by lax government regulation, so our only options are to repurpose them into something like park benches. Very little of that happens locally — and none of the worst plastic is recyclable, anyway.
As for history? It’s 2018. This generation faces a global climate crisis on a scale that no civilization has ever faced before, related primarily to our use of fossil fuels, including plastic.
For a sustainable future, the best plastic bag is the one that was never made.
Peter Denton is a writer and local sustainability consultant. He teaches history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.