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The palliative stage of the plastic problem

The moment you realise something terrible has happened can be a very physical experience. 

A pang of anxious adrenaline and a clenching of the gut when a subconscious fear becomes unavoidable fact.

Like receiving an unexpected diagnosis, it’s a moment you know things are not going to be the same from here on in.

It’s not a feeling you anticipate when you arrive on a tropical island.

But during our reporting on the Cocos Keeling Islands – a tiny, remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean – things became horribly clear.

I’ll be honest – before I went to the islands I viewed ocean plastic pollution as a bad thing, but ultimately in the scale of “bad things” in the world, it was not top of my concerns.

I saw it as something which could probably be solved by all of us getting a bit better at recycling, avoiding plastic bags, and a few good souls committing themselves to regular beach clean-ups.

The truth is, it’s a bit too late for that – something terrible has already happened.

A plastic bottle litters a beach on the Cocos Keeling Islands
A plastic bottle litters a beach on the Cocos Keeling Islands

Globally, we are already in a position of damage limitation – what we do from here on in is palliative.

The first moment of realisation was not the sight of the mounds of plastic waste washing up from thousands of miles away on the otherwise idyllic shores – it was when it became clear none of the scientists and campaigners on the island who truly understood the seriousness of the problem ate fish.

And we’re not talking avoiding frozen or processed fish. This wasn’t about concern for sustainable stocks. They didn’t eat fish at all – even the beautifully fresh specimens that were caught in the crystal waters of the islands.

Why? Because they believe the chemical contamination of this core part of the food chain is already a given.

Every day these experts see how the break-up of plastic waste into tiny particles has become rapid and dangerous.

They know these fragments, often the size of fish eggs and eaten by birds, turtles and other fish, are effectively toxic bullets absorbing the chemicals (arsenic, mercury, PCBs) already diluted in the sea, concentrating them on their surface, and then transferring them to the tissue of the animals that consume them.

In a world where seafood is the most widely traded edible commodity, and where at least three billion people rely on it as their primary source of protein, this is a significant problem.

“Nobody’s thinking that it’s going to be as bad as it is,” said Heidi Taylor, director of marine debris organisation Tangaroa Blue.

“This is going to be not an issue about saving turtles, this is going to be a human health issue, and that will be a game changer.”

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Paradise lost: the plastic ruining Indian Ocean beaches

So what can be done? That question prompted the next big moment of realisation, because the answer is far from reassuring.

Let’s start with what we can’t do: dredge the oceans of plastic. They are vast and deep and we haven’t got a hope.

The waste that is already there is there – and a lot of it will never go away. It will break up. The particles will absorb chemicals. These will present a threat to the food chain.

If the waste washes up on a beach, it may be cleared up by volunteers with their collection bags and good intentions, and if we are very lucky, that waste will be recycled rather than burned or put in landfill.

But the next tide will bring in more. We can clean up forever – it’s not a solution to the problem.

So the only answer is to try and turn off the tap, or at least to try and drastically reduce the amount of plastic we are producing, consuming and throwing away in the first place.

We all have a role to play in this, but let’s not kid ourselves: while your domestic recycling efforts and your “bag for life” are important, they are not going to be enough.

This shop in Perth, Australia has no packaging - just reusable containers.

Welcome to the shop with no plastic bags or packaging

On the Cocos Keeling Islands, the local administration is taking some steps. They recycle glass bottles and send crushed cans back to the mainland.

But when it comes to plastic waste, it’s just burned. It’s not entirely their fault – they have no other means of dealing with it.

But what comes in on each new shipment from the mainland? What goes on the shelves of the tiny community shops? More plastic bottles, more plastic cutlery, more polystyrene food containers.

Even on an island where the impact of our global plastic addiction is impossible to ignore, where there is a clear and genuine desire to live more sustainably, and where there are efforts to make a change, plastic that cannot be dealt with is still arriving by the planeload.

This is a microcosm of the global problem. It’s not a local issue. It’s not just about individual behaviour. This is a crisis that requires a major response – from governments, international action and a change in direction by the big players: the manufacturers for whom plastic packaging is a fundamental part of their business model.

None of that will be easy. Indeed, it will be as difficult as it is vital.

In a world where those with vested interests in maintaining our plastic addiction can borrow easily from the distraction strategies of the climate change denial industry, we should all feel a horrible, gut-clenching, moment of realisation.

Something terrible has happened, and now we have to deal with it.

:: Watch Tom Rayner’s documentary, Plastics In Paradise, at 9.30am, 2.30pm and 8.30pm today on Sky News.

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