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Plastic Not so Fantastic

By Grant Jones, CEO, Nelson Environment Centre (OC NZ)

As I write, the sun is shining and the view over Nelson from my office in the Environment Centre is simply stunning. Winters in this part of the world are pretty spectacular compared to some other places I have lived. But boy, what a difference a couple of weeks can make. Just how much rain did we have in June and the early part of July?

Not so long back, whilst looking for the ‘Good Life’, I bought myself a ‘lifestyle’ (read ‘life sentence’) block. We have had so much rain over the last two months I honestly thought the farm and everything on it, was going to get washed away. Certainly the local clay becomes pretty darn sticky when you have that much rain dumped on it, making staying clean as I get to the car on a work day morning particularly challenging.

One of the consequences of all that rain is the rivers became swollen and flooded, washing down all sorts of debris. With more rain than my neighbours have seen for several generations, the small stream that crosses my property became a torrent. Trees were washed away, flood gates simply disappeared, and multiple tonnes of silt, pebbles and even boulders are now not part of my property but significantly closer to Tasman Bay. The power of nature is simply amazing.

However, one of the less natural and more disturbing results of the flooding, , was  the amount of plastic left lying around. . Like an unwanted Christmas decoration, the trees, shrubs and debris that remained after the floods are now strewn with strips of unnatural green; the remains I presume of plastic used to wrap silage or hay bales somewhere upstream.

OK, I hear you say, he’s back on his plastic hobby horse!  But this unsightly mess that will take many hours to collect and dispose of, really makes me think about the impact we are having on our watercourses and  oceans as a result of our collective obsession with plastic. If even in the rural areas of ‘clean green’ New Zealand, we are disposing of enough plastic to smother the banks of beautiful streams after a storm, imagine what the situation is like in more densely populated areas  of the country, to say nothing of other parts of the world.

In a previous article I discussed that every year in New Zealand we use 1.14 billion plastic bags which, tied end to end, would circle the planet 7 times. I have no idea how much plastic that becomes if you start to add in all the other types that we use and throw away. The irony is, of course, that plastic, a product that can last for decades and even centuries in the environment, is often used to wrap products which are used or consumed in a matter of days or weeks, like your lunch time sandwich or bales of silage.  And we also know that much of this, as evidenced by my stream, ends up in water courses and is eventually washed out to sea. As this garbage breaks up (not down) into smaller plastic fragments, they can be ingested by fish and other marine animals.  Analysis suggests that two out of every three fish living in our oceans are suffering from plastic ingestion, so it is an issue that will come back to haunt us because, of course, we then eat those fish.

So I happily agree that this is a hobby horse of mine and I, for one, really want to see some change. Recycling of plastic is the absolute minimum we should be doing. Reuse is essential, and avoidance in the first place has to be the best approach.

The solutions are out there. With respect to plastic used on farms, for example, the AgRecovery Rural Recycling Programme (www.agrecovery.co.nz), managed by the AgRecovery Foundation, has been offering rural recycling services in New Zealand since 2005.

So, I urge everyone to do their bit to help protect the environment, the animals in it and ultimately, of course, ourselves by looking for ways to minimise the use of plastic and, when it is unavoidable, sensible ways of disposing of it.