We remember civilisations by what they leave behind, from arrowheads to pyramids, then our age will be known as the Age of Rubbish. Nothing else dominates our landscape, our oceans, our air and soil, and our lives like the things we buy, use quickly, and casually toss away.
Humans have been leaving things behind since we came down from the trees and stood upright, but garbage is a new invention, most of it dating from after the Second World War – and decades later here in Ireland. Most humans, in most times and places, had no garbage in the sense that we do; there were no tips, no roadside littering, no need for Tidy Town volunteer clean-up crews. Everything around us came from the natural world, was part of it, and went back to it as soon as it was discarded.
You might point to the broken pottery and arrowheads dug up by enthusiastic archaeologists, but those exceptions prove the point: they are precious because they are so rare and unusual. For 99.9 per cent of the time humans have been around, what few belongings we had were used over and over, and repaired until they broke.
Your grand-father’s cart, or saddle, or shovel, or newspaper, or any other possession, were made of organic and natural materials. They could be repaired and re-used over and over, and at the end of its life it could be made into firewood or composted into soil again, metal parts re-forged into something new.
I’m using horse-carts as an example, but you could say this about almost any item possessed by your grandparents, or any of their ancestors. A steel shovel would be hammered back into shape, its wooden handle replaced. A newspaper could be re-purposed in several ways around the house before being composted. Virtually every item that humans used could be re-used, repaired, re-forged, re-set, or simply turned into ashes or soil again.
Even when our civilisation industrialised – even during the eras of movies and cars, airplanes and Einstein – almost all our waste was organic and compostable. Writer Chris Agee mentions that in the industrial mega-polis of early 1900s London, about 85% of waste was cinders and charcoal, easily returned to the soil cycle, and much of the rest was bio-degradable, like wood, paper and compost.
Of course, some of these things could be buried where there is no oxygen, as many newspapers were in the early 20th century, and they will take a long time to decompose. Left out in the open, though, a newspaper quickly turns into damp mush, its bits pulled down below earth by worms. A newspaper discarded on someone’s lawn in the 1960s will certainly not still be sitting there today in its original form. A piece of plastic, however, will be.
In the last few decades, the world of durable tools and elegant machines has slowly disappeared, replaced by one in which our food, clothes, tools, toys and electronic devices are all made of plastic or come wrapped in plastic-- made to be bought, used quickly, discarded and then sit as harmful junk for tens of thousands of years. Plastic does not appear in Nature, so no insect, fungus or bacteria has evolved to eat it. When I compost our kitchen scraps, the orange peels and egg cartons all break down over a year or so into rich black soil. The few bits of plastic wrapper that fall in, though, remain plastic wrappers, and will remain so for millennia.
Some of this rubbish goes into landfills that have now become the most gigantic structures every built by humankind – the one outside New York, for example, is hundreds of times larger than the pyramids of Egypt. Some gets washed to the sea and floats there, forming patches of ocean the size of small continents where one is rarely out of sight of some kind of floating garbage.
In his amazing book “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman tells the story of University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson, who began studying plastics in the ocean in the 1980s helping to clean up the beaches near his home. As he compiled the team’s annual reports, he noticed more and more garbage that was smaller and smaller, and he and his colleague began collecting samples, sieving beach sand and realising that more and more of the sand was plastic.
In fact, many of the tiny plastic bits – called nurdles – had never been part of any larger food wrapper, laptop or Barbie doll. Some were simply raw materials from which larger plastic is made, flushed out of some factory before being used, while others are exfoliants from beauty products. Many facial scrubs, body scrubs and hand cleaners on the market today have a grainy texture because they are filled with tiny bits of plastic, and as soon as they are washed down the sink they go to the nearest river, to the nearest ocean, to fill up the water with bits of plastic and choke or poison multitudes of sea creatures.
Plastics are a new substance on Earth; before World War II, virtually none had been invented, and the oceans and rivers were plastic-free. Of course humans had created other kinds of pollution; we filled some cities with coal smog and some rivers with chemicals, and had already started pumping the carbon dioxide that would build up in the atmosphere until the weather itself began to change.
All those things, however, are temporary and easily fixable. Take smog; Seventy years ago London was notorious for its smog, factory coal smoke plus Britain’s usual fog to create a noxious air that killed many people. Over the next few decades, however, environmental laws forced factories to clean up their emissions somewhat, while plane trees planted along London’s streets helped pull toxins out of the air. Most of all, some factories moved out of the city, and while that is not all good news – some of them just moved to the Third World – it also reduced London’s noxious air, until “smog” went from being a daily fear to a historical curiosity.
The same is true of most environmental threats. Even the wild storms and temperature swings of climate change could be reduced dramatically for future generations – quickly and easily, by us today. All we would have to do would be to plant a lot more trees – say, across the American Central Asian prairies, stopping the spread of deserts and pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere.
Humans have done this before, albeit inadvertently; when Europeans reached the Americas, they unknowingly brought ten thousand years’ worth of diseases that wiped out most of the native populations. Much of North and South America had been fields and farms, or woodland periodically cleared for game; when the native populations died off, millions of acres grew back billions of trees, each sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat, so the effect was the opposite of today’s climate change; by lowering the carbon dioxide levels, they lowered the global temperature, and the result was the “Little Ice Age” of the 1600s and 1700s, when Londoners could hold public fairs on the then-thick ice of the Thames.
Most of our environmental threats, then, could be fixed if we had the will to fix them, and we can estimate how long they would take to heal. Plastics, however, are another matter. While we have built a throwaway society around them, and have flooded the oceans and landscape with them, we know little about how long they would take to decompose, or what toxic chemicals they will unleash as they do so. No plastic has ever died a natural death yet.
When Thompson looked at sieved ocean samples from World War II to the present, he saw almost no plastic until the 1950s. In the 1960s, though, any casual sieving of ocean water began to bring up bits of plastic, and then that amount of plastic grew exponentially in the decades that followed. Moreover, he said, since they were only straining the surface, they were probably severely underestimating the amount of plastic in the sea.
Our use and discarding of plastic has several effects on the sea. First, it destroys sea life – endangered sea turtles that have survived since the days of the dinosaurs are now choking on grocery bags, and sea otters get tangled in the plastic ring-holders for beer cans. It’s not just a case of animals being stupid; floating shopping bags, often coated in algae, can look identical to the jellyfish that turtles naturally eat.
The other rubbish we generate can bio-degrade eventually, if they are exposed to the elements; leather and newspaper, wood and metal, all rot or rust and return to the natural world from whence they came. Plastic, though, will always be with us, on any meaningful time frame.
Getting rid of the plastic in our lives sounds unthinkable -- a testament to how much of our lives has been taken over by this material – but it helps to remember that almost everything we do today we did fifty years ago, just without plastics. The problem is that so few products are made without plastics anymore – I admit that I’m writing this on a laptop that’s partly plastic, because there aren’t any laptops encased in wood or leather.
Of course we can cut back on our plastic use in a thousand small ways in our lives; re-using the same coffee mugs and shopping bags, asking the butcher to put our meat in a sealable container rather than a throwaway bag, buying individual cans of beer – or just brewing your own – rather than getting the six-pack. We can get wooden toys for our children rather than plastic toys, and use twine ropes to secure things on our car instead of vinyl ropes, and leave fish alone altogether, as the fishing industry is one of the most destructive sources of ocean plastic. Most of all, we can weigh our rubbish every week to see how much we use – if you forgo plastic and compost your food, you should reduce your rubbish to almost nothing.
This saves you a lot of money, in addition to the amount you save by not buying things and throwing them away. You might not care about sea turtles and otters, but you might realise that using plastics is costing you a great deal in the long run, and that abandoning them lightens your life.
Ultimately, though, personal and individual choices will not put more than a dent in our plastic use; the real action has to come from governments restricting what companies can manufacture and throw away. And before we can persuade governments, we need to persuade people.
Check out documentaries like “A Plastic Tide” or “Trashed,” read books like “The World Without Us” or “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” and look at web sites from zero-waste groups. Give speeches about them to your local school students, Rotary Clubs, Toastmasters or 4-H Clubs, and to local church groups. Contact organisations and set up a network of people in your area who are interested in the same issues.
Get everyone in your area to understand that they can use very little plastic in their own lives and still live a normal life, and that our civilisation could function on zero plastics and still go on. It has before, in the memory of people still living.