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Santa’s Gifts from the North Pole Were Never Meant to Bring a Layer of Plastic to Our Cities

Marine Conservation | Date: December 7, 2015

The holiday season is upon us, with a time for cheer, happiness and gifts.

The giving season, however, has also brought a boom in plastic items over the decades, with decorations and products becoming cheaper, more colorful and sadly disposable. This is true of both the products, and also the layer(s) of plastic packaging that they often come in.

Much of this is now unavoidable, as plastic has so many properties that make it cheap and easy to produce; with new shapes, colors, low weight and durability. These are often the same reasons that plastic then causes an issue when disposed of, because communities do not have the time, resources or interest to sort, clean, process and reuse this material, leaving it, as if sprinkled by Santa’s sleigh across our territories as he flies from one country to the next.

It is estimated that 8m tons of plastic enters the ocean each year around the world, with roughly 80% coming from land. Plastic is known to impact over 700 species, is now found in 90% of the seabird species, and is making its way into our food chain. This relates directly to our cities, communities and the way we produce and consume products, so it is not an “ocean” issue per-se. The ocean just happens to be the unfortunate recipient of being downstream of everything.

Hong Kong is sadly one of the largest producers of waste in the world, with over 1.4kg/person/day generated, much of this being plastic.

Because our recycling system has never been well developed, and because there has been no charge for dumping waste, the community has had little experience in a scaled effort in recycling. The public bins are both insufficient for our population, and often hard to find if you want to use one. Lack of support for the recycling industry, partly because it used to be easy to just ship low quality trash to China (which is no longer the case), coupled with a low level of trust that recycling actually gets done as publicized, means that we have one of the lowest levels of recycling in the world, at a low 14% for household waste.

Landfill has always been the government’s easy way out for waste, and as a result, no effort has been made for scaled sorting and recovery facilities. Therefore, when waste is mixed with food, the value of everything in the bag goes quickly to zero. This would be improved greatly with an easy “wet and dry” collection program, and new material recovery facilities for the city, like New York has, which are big enough to put a good dent in the 9,000 tons of waste created per day. Dry waste is relatively easy to sort, and wet waste can now be processed into other products or energy if collected in a more pure form.

So if you feel frustrated that it is tough for you to do your part knowing that this conundrum of high plastic use with low recovery options happens all year round, and not just with the gift giving season, maybe this year when decorating or giving, you can think about minimizing your plastic footprint. You can think twice about what you buy and use, minimizing both the plastic packaging, and products that will get thrown away with one use, including party items like plastic plates, cups and utensils. We all know how to use chopsticks here.

Santa never meant to leave behind a layer of plastic waste as he prepared to spread joy to the world from his workshop in the North Pole, so maybe we can use the holiday season to start a new mindset for consumption, where waste is a low byproduct of that activity.

By Doug Woodring
Founder Ocean Recovery Alliance / Plasticity Forum
Photo: Alex Hofford