It was the iconic movie of the generation…think 1970s and The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman was simply riveting as this young college product who gets seduced by a woman his mother’s age but ends up eloping with her daughter.
Few people who watched then remember this elderly man who comes over to a visibly bored Ben (Hoffman), approaches him at a party and tells him confidentially, “One word… plastics.”
Ben looks confused and asks, “Exactly how do you mean?” and the older fellow answers, “There’s a great future in plastics’, leaving the youngster even more befuddled.
Plastics then was something unreal, new fangled, illusory, a passing fancy maybe, like the Hollywood “plastic smiles” and the plastic cups in which ice-cream was being served. But plastic was catching on, and the world was in the process of being changed fundamentally.
All of this had its origin in the combustive role played by oil in the affairs of humanity. Oil is all around us, and plastics with it.
In his 2004 book, Crossing the Rubicon, Michael C Ruppert gives us a glimpse of how much we have been entangled in oil and its derivatives such as plastic:
“The shell of your computer is made from it, your food is wrapped in it. You brush your hair and teeth with it. There is probably some in your shampoo, and most certainly its container. Your children’s toys are made from it. You take your trash out in it…It makes your clothes soft in the drier.“As you change the channels with the TV remote you hold it in your hands. Some of your furniture is probably made with it. It is everywhere inside your car……’ ad infinitum.
No doubt, plastic seduced the world with its ability to look just like the natural thing, resembling wood, stone, ivory and tortoiseshell while being lighter, stronger and more amenable to manipulation into multiple forms, shapes and colours.
The seduction has lost its pull, however, as the world has awakened to the destructive force of plastics.
So much of the plastic produced on earth finds its way into our soils, creating landfills of dead material that in turn deaden the earth wherein they are lodged, while other articles, borne by ocean-bound canals, rivers and other waterways, carry up to nine million tonnes of plastic to the ocean every year.
It is this way that we have managed not only to disease the dry land on which we stand, but also to choke life out of the seas on which we depend for a great part of our livelihood and survival.
In 1997, Charles C. Moore, a marine scientist, discovered what has come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, between Hawaii and California, a solid flotilla of pieces of furniture, motor vehicle and boat parts, bits of furniture, toys, chunks of everything and anything. It is estimated that the Patch covers more than 1.5 million square kilometers, or three times the size of France.
If this sounds scary, it is because it is. Both land and ocean resources at our disposal cannot be augmented, but they certainly can be degraded.
There is, at least as far as the scientific knowledge at our disposal today, absolutely no way we can contrive to add a few kilometres of land or a few buckets of fresh or salt water to our rivers and oceans.
We have seen the extent to which unfettered human activity can poison our soils, and examples abound in terms of deforestation in some parts of the African continent. Many countries, through their governments and non-state agencies, have raised the alarm over such nefarious activities.
But little has been said about the evil that plastics can do, and even where something has been said, little has been undertaken by way of proactive measures.
Rwanda has shown the way in this area by banning the use of plastics in the past quarter of a century, and today you could win an award if you spot a piece of plastic floating around the streets of Kigali.
Tanzania has dillydallied, first banning plastics a few years ago, then making exceptions, then forgetting about the whole thing.
But now Tanzania has come back with a ban. From June 1, no more plastic bags, that is the order. Kenya’s ban is hopefully still holding, and that should strengthen Tanzania’s hand. Let us hope that this time the ban is here to stay.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]