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Thinking in circles

I often think that the world would be in better shape today if we were all Buddhists, not because we could all do with more thoughtful meditation in our lives (which we probably could) but because we’d all believe in reincarnation. And when you’re likely to have to deal with the consequences of the way that you treat the world in your next life, you’re far more likely to look after it in this one.

We have 8 million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year. This plastic doesn’t biodegrade and only 5% of it is floating on the surface which means that we don’t see most of it.

Many Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism have long understood the concept of circularity with a central belief that everything in life is circular based on their observations of natural ecological cycles. Many Western societies on the other hand have lost this original connection with these longstanding natural cycles and tend to be far more fixated on systems which deliver what they need when they need it – what happens after that is rarely considered.

Sadly, in a world where progress is all-important, our systems have been built to reward the progression of things from point A to point B; going from point A to point A just seems like a waste of time. However, as a planet, we are increasingly faced with evidence of the problems associated with these linear economic models.

When there’s more plastic than fish in the sea

While plastics do not biodegrade, they break up into pieces, becoming smaller and smaller to the point that sea life think that plastics are food.

We have spent centuries extracting and consuming the planet’s resources and then simply discarding what is left into the ocean or landfills. Seldom do we give a second thought to where our stuff goes after we use it. It’s worth stopping to ponder for a moment that all of the plastic ever created still exists today – that’s over a hundred years’ worth of plastic, and it’s growing every day.

Not surprisingly, our natural ecosystems are reaching the point where they can no longer simply absorb our waste and we’re starting to witness natural feedback cycles in the form of climate change, species extinctions and oceans increasingly teeming with more plastic than fish in volume.

So how can we start bending our linear systems towards more circular systems? Ones in which the end product of one system becomes a resource for another? It’s actually not as difficult as you may think. All around us, our natural ecosystems have been doing this for years.

Recycling your plastics is an obvious solution but should really not be seen as the starting point. Although South Africa has a growing recycling sector, the reality is that due to poor economic returns or the non-recyclability of a number of types of plastics, a large percentage of the plastic that you use will never be recycled, even if you put it in your recycling bin.

Refuse the problematic plastics

Plastic cups and straws are considered problematic plastics, likely to be used once for less than 20 minutes before they’re thrown away and unlikely to be recycled.

A good place for you to start is to take a minute to think about whether we need some of the problem plastics to start with. Plastic items such as straws, coffee cup lids, earbuds, individual sweet wrappers, plastic cutlery, stirrers and shopping bags are generally used for less than 20 minutes before they are thrown away. These are items that are highly unlikely to be recycled because of their size and format. They are also light and tend to be disposed of in public dustbins from where they often get whipped up by the wind and blown into the environment. They often end up flowing down storm water drains and ending up in rivers, or directly into the sea in coastal cities. They are likely to outlive you and your grandchildren by a couple of hundred years.

The next time someone offers you one of these items, take a second to think about whether you really need it, or if you can find another way of way of consuming your drink or carrying your coffee and shopping.

John Duncan, left, gets to the heart of our plastic problem in the first episode of a new series called Down2Earth on People°s Weather (DStv channel 180). Catch it at 18h30 on Tuesdays.

Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Rethink…

But what about the plastics that we simply can’t live without? This is where we really need to start rethinking our understanding of the concept of waste and take a few lessons from nature. Think of the spider’s web which has the same tensile strength as steel and is much more elastic and yet is able to rapidly biodegrade in the natural environment. While there are still a number of challenges associated with making truly biodegradable plastics that are able to biodegrade safely and quickly in the natural environment, by studying animals like spiders, researchers are making new breakthroughs every day.

For those plastics that we don’t want to biodegrade (like your car or computer), we need to rethink the social, institutional and technological systems that have locked us into things like private car ownership and single-use plastic packaging. In a number of cases, the solutions actually lie in looking back at how we used to operate in the past, when communities shared resources like cars and tools, milk was delivered in reusable glass bottles and people would buy their food unpackaged and fresh from a local market.

When you start to think in circles, the options are endless.

John Duncan Photo
John Duncan, Senior Manager: Marine Programme, WWF South Africa

John leads a passionate team of people committed to finding solutions to some of the most difficult challenges facing our oceans today.

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