Puff was a mythological dragon, made famous by one of the original, 1960s, folk-rock bands, consisting of Peter, Paul, and Mary. He lived “by the sea”, and would “frolic in the autumn mist” in a land they called Honah Lee. Portrayed as always coming out “with his fearless roar” every time little boys came to play on the sea-beach, Puff became irrelevant as boys grew up and turned to “other toys”. A more glaring and graver irrelevance today is posed by the deep plastic plight suffocating our oceans.
In a gripping June 2018 National Geographic cover story entitled “Planet or plastic”, we are informed how half of all plastic produced on this planet has been in this 21st century alone: Coca-Cola contributes 128 billion bottles to the half-billion tonnes of plastic jam-packing our oceans each and every passing year (not to mention choking fish gills and wrapping fish bodies till they perish), and slowly suffocating our own human existence.
Though these polymers were first introduced in the late 19th century, it was only with World War II that their usages proliferated and became popular: from saving lives in operation theatres and bailing air-force fighters through nylon parachutes to serving a wide variety of consumer needs, like buildings, transportation components, industrial materials, electrical gadgets, and textiles. Indeed, the largest plastic proportion is in packaging, boasting the shortest plastic consumer lifecycle of only six months (the longest lifecycles of 35-odd years get weaved into constructing buildings). Since 1970 (symbolically, our independence), plastic usage has quintupled, creating a footprint set to swallow human independence by, for instance, 2070.
LDC (least developed country) citizens have become the biggest culprits: our economic growth depends upon plastic consumption, with Manila's Pasig River becoming, until the recent reforms, one of the largest conveyors of plastic to the seas. Likewise, China's Yiwu International Trade City (in Zhejiang province) boasts being “the world's capital of everyday plastic”. In fact, our own Brahmaputra-Ganges delta, where it is estimated more than 30,000 tonnes are dumped annually, is also among the largest plastic conduits to the sea. Almost all other major rivers east of Bangladesh, all the way up to China's east coast, deposit almost as much. Since these polymers can live for several centuries, proliferating numbers of boys along those deltas will never get to know or see Puff because, perhaps, of the very plastic toys they play with in the city.
Though this is all very common knowledge, the article elevates the “act locally, think globally” environmental mantra. Parents could begin by not gifting their ever-endearing children plastic products (this is tough since, without enough of the right kind of education, those rising from lower classes will argue, “If the rich could do it, why must we foot the consequences?”). Nature can help substitute these with renewable materials. Much can be learned from one of the countries most damaging the oceans with plastics: Indonesia. It is also a pacesetter in experimenting with biodegradable plastic bags made out of edible cassava.
A motivated Bangladesh might explore if some of its own crops can help substitute plastic. Of particular promise is jute (our fabric with a never-ending “golden” trail of consequences), not the fibre but the stem: we have long utilised it to print paper, in fact, our paper industry is rooted in this practice. With some ingenuity, that stem paper can be converted into biodegradable plastic bags. Many of us are already aware of gunny bags that can easily substitute for packaging in our supermarkets and other stores. Penny-wise businessmen may outlast their pound-foolish entrepreneur counterparts by stepping up to the plate, literally the global plate, to quickly, conveniently supply the huge international demand to displace plastics. Ingenuity must be coupled with far-sightedness: like the monsoon rains, jute is too readily available, demanding too little effort to maximise outputs, benefits, profits, and, above all, future mileage for our grandchildren, if we only put our minds to it, individually and collectively.
Perhaps the most multifaceted stride can be made with that cylindrical contraption so many of us just simply relish to hold between our fingers, as if our masculinity or nirvana lies in its outcome: cigarettes. One-quarter of each cigarette is all plastic, capable of being discarded in the most nonchalant way, even in the prettiest of gardens. Here we can hop, skip, and jump from Indonesia to Thailand, where a slow movement capable of becoming a tide very soon has gotten off first-base: picking up discarded cigarettes from the very pristine beaches, not just by hand, but through a subject-developed contraption that sifts the sand, trapping all pollutants larger than a certain size. That would automatically give the adjoining sea another lease of life.
Equally proactive, and motivator for us, have been Kerala fishermen. As John McKenna noted in a World Economic Forum article entitled “These Indian fishermen take plastic out of the sea and use it to build roads,”J Mercykutty Amma, the Indian province's fisheries minister, launched a “Clean Sea” campaign whereby typical fishermen hauled in more than 25 tonnes of plastic bags and bottles in less than a year. In a country where the average person uses over 11kg of plastic annually, that is quite an accomplishment. Hats come off for him, indeed, for any other similar initiative or practice, past, present, and future, by any politician in any country against plastics.
Campaigns across our sweltering, congested city streets, parks, gutters, embankments, and the like would reap a harvest more fruitful for our future than what we are accustomed to. Only a change of behavioural norms would do the trick. Stopping purchases of plastic is a start. Whether we smoke or not, at least picking up the litter, anyone's litter, would be another. Indonesians and Thais have done so, and other countries have also started nudging towards liberating our appetites from bad consumption. We can do it too, if and only if we all take out future investments as we do our fasting, Eid visits home, or even vacationing in the world's longest marine-drive: with pleasure, purpose, and pragmatism.
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).