We’ve just undergone a major spring housecleaning of the soul. How nice not to be trapped by weekly blizzards! Now imagine yourself being permanently trapped by endless trash washing up on your shores from China, Indonesia, and other remote lands -- coupled with poor sanitation services from a worse government. You could either endure and despair, or take useful action.
In Lama, Kenya, activists launched the Flipflopi project: they took lots of plastic trash, recycled them into planks, then enlisted unemployed artisans with traditional boat-making techniques. They built the first dhow made entirely of recycled plastic, including 30,000 discarded flip-flops and old toothbrushes. The sails are made of recycled PET plastic bottles (PET is the same material as polyester and in automotive parts.) You can learn more at www.theflipflopi.com
They sailed their all-recycled dhow around East Africa for two years, engaging with other artivists -- art activists -- who were keen to find creative solutions to trash. They are now building a dhow twice the length to handle deep water so it can sail around the world.
The visuals of Lama’s trash problem are horrifying. Donkeys eating plastic that could kill them. Cows in New Delhi routinely died of eating plastic bags in years past. The state of Tamil Nadu in India banned all single-use plastic bags over two decades ago for the sake of their wildlife tourism.
Plastic’s not just on land, beaches, or shallow waters: it’s been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Plastics don’t rot -- even “biodegradable plastics” don’t degrade well. Instead they break apart into smaller and smaller particles which can enter our guts and blood to interfere with the function of cells. We have found a few fungi and bacteria that can “eat'' certain types of plastic. That’s it.
The Flipflopi project connected with Plastik Talks in Kampala, Uganda. As its lead artivist and sculptor said, at first his neighbors thought he was crazy for taking action to turn trash into art, then wound up supporting it. They took over an illegal dump, built a community center from 3000 plastic bottles, gave workshops and created jobs, and now have vegetable gardens where trash used to be.
They project that the 78% of the world plastic problem could be solved by 2040 IF we use all possible venues -- reduce, reuse and recycle, and ban unnecessary single-use plastics. Their goal is a full circular economy for plastic. But they can’t do that without folks in the chief polluting nations taking action, too.
Per a NPR report in 2021, over half of the world’s plastic waste is generated by just 20 companies, and 98% of their single-use plastic is from virgin (un-recycled) feedstock. The top three, generating 16% of the world’s plastic between them are: giant Exxon Mobil, followed by the Dow Chemical Co. and China's Sinopec.
The report said that producers of polymers — known as the building blocks of plastics — should begin disclosing their single-use plastic waste "footprint," while banks and investors should move to "phase out entirely" any financing that goes toward the production of single-use plastics. In the past, Minnesotan Republicans have voted against any constraints on single-use plastics.
Of course, plastics will be necessary for medical equipment, surgical gloves, electronics and many other applications. But these vital applications are a tiny fraction of all single-use plastic use.
So, single-use plastic bags? Food and other items continually encased in flimsy, single-use, difficult-to-recycle or repair plastic pouches? That creates a lot of unrecyclable, un-biodegradable litter blowing around -- as I’m reminded every spring thaw when I clean up other people’s junk food wrappers and bottles!
Plastics aren’t going away; they’re too useful. But we could be more educated on them, wisely reduce use of the more toxic plastics to reclaim/recycle, and curb unnecessary single-use applications. We also could end use of PFAs (formed by fluoridation of plastic) in our food packaging. They leach into our waterways and have been linked to cancer.
Environmental regulations are also necessary. Few may recall, but the polluted Cuyahoga river in Ohio actually caught on fire, in 1968. This is how bad things got. People took action then. The Clean Water Act and Clean Air Acts got passed in the 70’s.
Huge wealthy polluters continue to fight regulations in courts and politically, and always will. And it’s now easier for them to buy folks due to weaker anti-bribery precedents set by our Supreme Court. (Thanks, Republicans.)
My dad told me how the Dow Chemical plant dumped chemicals in his hometown river in the 50’s. He also fished downstream of slaughterhouses, catching huge catfish in barrels. They’d be shot with arrows on lines, and he’d eat or sell them. They tasted good, he said, from eating all these dumped slaughterhouse bits, he mused, explaining to himself just how his cancer happened.