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We need to rethink our relationship with plastic

PUBLISHED: 10:00 04 June 2017

Plastic waste is having a terrible impact on the environment. Picture: MCS

Plastic waste is having a terrible impact on the environment. Picture: MCS

Archant

Plastic. It’s transformed many aspects of modern life for the better. But that transformation has come at a terrible cost, writes Sheena Grant.

It’s not inevitable, of course. That cost is, unfortunately, down to human behaviour.

Parents know better than most the two sides of plastic.

I saw the positive this week, when my son spent an hour or two of the half-term holidays putting together a Knex kit, complete with motor, to make a fabulous ‘sail racer’.

As we watched it zoom backwards and forwards across the conservatory tiles I thought about the wonders of this particular piece of plastic kit. It had nurtured his creativity, given him a sense of achievement and been great fun. Like Lego, that other ingenious building toy beloved of so many generations of children, Knex is the acceptable face of plastic.

Sadly though, plastic has a dark side. If Knex and Lego are its Jedi warriors then the millions of cheap, throwaway toys given away with everything from fast food to comics and Christmas crackers are its Imperial Storm Troopers.

And an uninhabited island in the South Pacific that has been in the news recently must be, to continue the theme, plastic’s Death Star.

If you haven’t heard about it already, this island, say scientists, is littered with the highest density of plastic waste anywhere in the world.

Henderson Island, part of the UK’s Pitcairn Islands group, has an estimated 37.7 million pieces of debris on its beaches. Apparently, that’s because it’s near the centre of an ocean current, meaning it collects much rubbish from boats and South America. According to the scientists, remote islands like this act as a “sink” for the world’s rubbish.

Researchers hope the fate of Henderson Island will cause people to “rethink their relationship with plastic”. I hope so too.

In addition to fishing items, the island is strewn with everyday things including toothbrushes, cigarette lighters and razors. A large number of hard hats of “every shape, colour and size” were also discovered.

“A lot of the items are what we wrongly refer to as disposable or single-use,” said Dr Jennifer Lavers, one of the researchers, from the University of Tasmania.

“Land crabs are making their homes inside bottle caps, containers and jars,” Dr Lavers told the BBC.

“At first it looks a little bit cute, but it’s not. This plastic is old, it’s sharp, it’s brittle and toxic.”

Henderson Island is listed by Unesco as a coral atoll with a relatively unique ecology, notable for 10 plant and four bird species. Sadly, now it is also notable for something else.

The condition of the island highlights how plastic debris has affected the environment on a global scale, Dr Lavers said.

“Almost every island in the world and almost every species in the ocean is now being shown to be impacted one way or another by our waste,” she said.

Everything has a cost, somewhere down the line, even things that are so cheap they are seemingly eminently disposable.

I no longer buy a whole host of things because of this ubiquitous plastic. I’m better off as a result and, if more of us did the same - and made sure we disposed of our litter responsibly - the planet would be too.

Share your tips via email or Tweet her using #ThriftyLiving.

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