It’s a beautiful day on the outskirts on Wasgawuma National Park (Sri Lanka) and we’ve spent around 3hrs tracking elephants. Walking through grasslands over 6ft tall in the heat of the day, it’s hot, it’s humid and we’re tired but we’re getting close. We find some elephant dung, which we inspect, it’s been there a few days now as it’s quite dry but we can tell where the elephants have been. Firstly, we find some watermelon seeds so we know which regions and farmlands they’ve been passing through, we find other seeds, all of which are easily traced back to local farmers, which is great for understanding their migration routes and feeding behaviour but then we also notice plastic!
Why are these elephants eating plastic?
Not only are they the largest land mammals but also have the largest brains and three times as many neurons as humans. They show empathy, they mourn for their dead, they use tools, they can distinguish between men and women, young and old, and even dialects, and have incredible memories. So we know they’re intelligent.
Surely, they know the difference between food and plastic?
By following their tracks (and dung) we find this rubbish heap, dumped by locals with the same mentality that many of us have: “Out of sight, out of mind”. We’re no different here in the UK or many parts of the western world, whether it’s land fill or sending it to another country, if we can’t see it, it’s not our problem but we all know now, it is our problem and it is our responsibility. The elephants started to come here as it was easy pickings, they would find food and even follow the dump trucks to sites like these. Whilst we know they are clever enough to distinguish the difference between food and plastic they don’t have the capabilities to separate it (in some instances) and it is now getting in to their system.
Guess what happens next?
It gets broken down by insects, it may go back into the soil, in which further crops will grow and eaten by other animals. It will get eaten by birds and small mammals and then larger birds and larger mammals and then...us!
Plastic is literally everywhere - it’s not just in our oceans, which we hear so much about and has been a great alarm call to the issue but its in our clothes, our packaging, our food, our cars, our homes and even the air we breath. The micro plastics and fibres, in our water system and atmosphere, are becoming a growing concern. We’ve discovered that it’s not just the bigger (macro) plastics causing issues for birds to take flight or beaching whales due to malnutrition but its the chemicals, diseases and toxins that they leach that could have a much bigger impact.
We’re destroying the species that keep these ecosystems so perfectly aligned and as a result now destroying ourselves. We don’t really know the full extent as to what the long term issues might be but we know its serious. These chemicals will affect our development, our hormones and our endocrine systems so we need to take action.
It’s tricky living in a developed country, we have (generally) good infrastructure, good resources and half decent waste management but in regards to recycling, different councils have different policies and different coloured bins and different procedures, so people get confused. We get to a point that we don’t know what we can, or can’t, recycle nor which bin means which. And, even if we do all that and get it all right, it may still just go to landfill. This is just recycling, what about our purchasing in the first place, our consumerism, our food and our clothes. What about upcycling, repurposing or simply just reducing!
So what can we do?
The initial design model of plastic was floored, it had no end of life and it is now a victim of it’s on success. It’s durable, it’s light and has many incredible characteristics that make it ‘soooo’ good but it’s cheap and as a result we don’t value it, which has created a throwaway culture. There are talks to implementing taxes at different stages of its production and purchasing, but a systemic change needs to occur before it’s too late. As I’ve mentioned before we can all pass the blame but its a collective of people, consumers, organisations and governments that can offer a holistic approach to this systemic change.
From designers to innovators, researchers, scientists, polymer experts, textile technologists, marine biologists, pedologists, pathologists, chemists and engineers (you get the point) - it’s a complex task that needs to be addressed by a number of industry experts to create change and that’s one of many things that I love so much about the BCorp community - Industry leaders committed to using business as a force for good.
However, the largest group is the consumer (you) and in the developed world we can certainly reduce our plastic consumption and stop it going to other countries, who are unable to deal with it. The next issue is how to change the mind-set and products available to developing countries, who ‘may’ need to purchase single use products - such as toiletries, sanitation products and food which need to withstand extreme conditions but need to be sold in small enough quantities to make them accessible.
I don’t know the answer.
I don’t think many people do.
There certainly isn’t a quick solution, silver bullet or magic wand but we can all do our bit and work together to create solutions, and who knows what the knock-on effect/systemic change might be?