Wednesday 06 December 2023

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic

This article first appeared on Malta Today

I cannot seem to get the lyrics out of Barbie Girl from my head, probably because the 20-year-old song seems to have made a resurgence and has become popular again among little girls. But it’s also because the theme this week has been all about plastic.

As the conference Our Ocean convened in Malta, the big whale aptly named Plasticus arrived, entirely made out of plastic waste collected from the seas, and took prominence smack in the middle of Castille square. It makes a powerful statement and has definitely increased awareness about the need not only to recycle, but more importantly, to reduce the amount of plastic in packaging.

Unfortunately, the marketing people over at Benna did not appear to have got that particular memo, although I am sure by now they have received the message loud and clear from environmentally-conscious consumers. You see, they chose this precise week to launch the new packaging of their milk products, and while the bright, different coloured polka dots were a great success aesthetically speaking, which gave our home-grown cartons of milk an updated, fresh new look, the manufacturers also decided to change the spout into a plastic screw top. Although more convenient, it is also made out of HDPE, high density Polyethylene, which is the worst type of plastic possible for the environment.

I am trying to be optimistic that perhaps people will take the trouble to recycle the caps, but the more realistic part of me knows that many won’t bother. On top of the sheer amount of plastic generated and thrown away (but not recycled) in this country, this is the last thing we need.

Everywhere you go shopping, it is as if people want to continuously shove plastic at you, whether it is for produce or an item of clothing. It is almost like an automatic reflex even for small items, which can easily be put into your handbag instead, and yet you are constantly inevitably offered a plastic bag. When the directive came out a few years ago to charge for plastic carrier bags, more people started taking their own re-usable shopping bags, but we also suddenly saw an appearance of very thin plastic bags without handles which, for some bizarre reason, were exempt from this charge. That is why you see them so readily available near the fruit and vegetables sections, where everyone uses them with carefree abandon.

The Western world’s dependence on lightweight plastic bags for shopping dates back to the 60s when they were first invented by a Swedish engineer (which is ironic, since Sweden since then has become one of the most vociferous anti-plastic campaigners there is). Their use exploded in the 80s and 90s as they were found to be stronger and more durable than paper bags, but it is precisely their durability which makes them so harmful.

If you have never recycled, the only way to really understand just how much of our domestic rubbish consists of packaging is if you spend a week or so separating your waste. It is extremely easy, and once you get into it, it becomes second nature. By the end of that week you will see that your grey recycling bags filled with paper/carton and plastic are bursting at the seams, while the organic waste (black bag) is taking longer to fill up. It is the plastic, however, which is the biggest problem, as exemplified by our friend the whale, because when left in landfills it simply does not break down, and when it is thrown in the seas and oceans it is a threat to marine life. That is why the ideal option is to reduce it at source. We need to turn down the offer of plastic bags as much as we can, and cut down on the amount of plastic bottles we purchase in general.

Meanwhile, there does seem to be some actual progress being made at governmental level. During the Our Ocean conference, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was reported as saying that “70 per cent of the plastic bottles generated on the island would be recovered by 2019” while announcing that the government would be introducing a beverage container refund scheme. I’m hoping this will actually work and we will see a drastic reduction of plastic bottles strewn everywhere, just as the deposit on glass bottles used to work so well, with everyone returning as many bottles as they could to get a refund.

It’s a Barbie World

Talking about plastic also brings me, in an roundabout way, to the issue of the Arka ta’ Noe zoo, where exotic animals are kept in captivity so that children can come and pet them. It is of course, a pretense world, because Malta is not in the middle of the Amazon jungle and exotic animals are not indigenous to this island. And the only reason that the children can be allowed up close is because many of the animals are purportedly sedated.

According to their FB page it is described as “a legal therapeutic zoo (on) over 20 tumoli of land. We host several types of animals such as birds,parrots, ducks,owls, geese, swans, emus, squirrels, monkeys, lemurs, rabbits, donkeys, mountain goats, horses, alpacas, zebras, wallabies and tigers.”

I find it interesting that the word ‘legal’ was thrown into that description because the zoo was only legally sanctioned on Thursday in an appalling decision by the Planning Authority which has basically telegraphed the message to all of us that you can break the law any which way you want, because eventually your illegalities will be sanctioned and you will be given the stamp of approval. (Oh, and if you agree to some free educational visits by schoolchildren we will even waive the 50K Euro penalty).

The zoo itself is a photo opportunity, as can be seen by the many photos of tiger cubs (wearing a harness and leash), posing for photos with families.

There are those who love this kind of thing, as can be attested to by those who spoke up in defence of the zoo, including parents of children with a disability. However, the fact that the place first broke the law and then got its permit anyway, still rankles with me. I think it is giving all sorts of wrong signals and it just does not sit right. Wild animals who are not in their natural habitat, an owner who bulldozes ahead and gets the necessary permission later, and an attempt to try to patch the whole thing over by offering free ‘educational’ visits. Would it have been so terribly difficult to do things properly the first time round? Would it not be nice enough for children anyway if the animals being kept had to be normal farm animals rather than this penchant to acquire wildlife species which are being caged and forced to live in unnatural surroundings and climate?

Indeed it’s a Barbie world, made of plastic, but not that fantastic.

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