The Plastic Challenge

By Gabrielle Duebendorfer
Reader Contributor

I started writing this article in January on a gorgeous beach. I was inspired by the universal paradox of beauty and ugliness; summer and winter; happiness and sadness — all of it mixed together across time zones and cultures. Yet, beyond it all was something that is untouchable, sacred, spacious: call it home, the divine, God or peace. When I rest in that, I feel connected and inspired. That is, inspired to write about plastic.

Traveling in Thailand I have been struck by Thai dedication to reduce plastic usage. One finds water refill stations, metal refill bottles and straws. More and more towns, resorts and restaurants are dedicated to being green.

Then you see the reality of regular tourism. Tourists and locals alike buy beverages in plastic bottles, freely discarded behind resorts or restaurants or on beaches. Nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute around the world. They make up the bulk of plastic waste worldwide — washing up on beaches, breaking down into micro plastics that are permeating our environment, distributed to remote areas via ocean currents and snow. The tiny pieces of these products are incorporated into the cells of microorganisms, which find their way into the food chain. Meanwhile, leached chemicals have carcinogenic and hormone disrupting impacts.

Lest you start getting overwhelmed and shut down, I will explore some ways to reduce our reliance on plastics and therefore the burden on our oceans and bodies. However, in order to take action it is important to understand the enormity of the problem. Awareness gives us the choice and motivation to take action. 

More than 50% of global plastic waste comes from single-use packaging. According to National Geographic, “18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year — the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash sitting on every foot of coastline around the world.” 

Most plastic has been produced in the past 15 years and takes up to 400 years to break down. Only 5% of plastic waste is actually being recycled and 85% ends up in landfills, eventually finding its way into the ocean. 

Walking the beach in Thailand — a beach that has been cleaned up for tourists’ sake — I still gathered a big garbage bag full of plastic trash. 

We have to seriously reduce single-use plastic products. While this might seem an impossible task, we can all start with some simple actions: make sure you have cloth shopping bags or traditional baskets ready to use in your car or bicycle; avoid produce and other items wrapped in plastic; invest in cloth or silicon produce bags; and invest in a water filter (such as multi-pure systems) and dispenser for your home or office and carry metal bottles. Even most airports have water refill stations now. 

You might be inspired to just pick one of these and implement it routinely. Ask companies or restaurants you frequent to use recyclable straws and packaging material.

That said, reusing is just as important as reducing. Plastic bags are a very convenient item and I still use them at times. They, as well as containers and cutlery can be washed and reused. Have a set in your car along with a water bottle, coffee mug and shopping bags. Shipping boxes and stuffing can be brought to shipping stores. 

Inspired by the beauty of marine life as shown in Sir Richard Attenborough’s Blue Planet series, I gave myself the challenge to learn how to dive in Thailand. It was quite a different experience between seeing the undersea world on television and actually swimming among the reefs, moray eels and clown fish. Unfortunately, plastics present a huge problem for the fish and the reefs. 

It is easy to get overwhelmed with all the dismal news; but, as long as we still have an eye for all the beauty and wonder of this world, we can do our part in preserving it — however small it might be. 

Dr. Gabrielle Duebendorfer has been working as a licensed naturopathic physician for almost 30 years and is inspired by the beauty and resiliency of our bodies and planet.

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