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Father Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary who has worked in the Philippines since 1969. In 1974, he founded the Preda Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to protecting the rights of women and children and campaigning for freedom from sex slavery and human trafficking.

Killing our planet, our home, slowly

Killing our planet, our home, slowly

A plastic whale is unveiled by environmental activists on the beach of Naic town in the Philippine province of Cavite in 2017. The activists want to underscore, through the art installation, the problem of plastics pollution in the oceans. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)


Published: April 19, 2018 04:40 AM GMT
Earth Day is coming and we have to focus on what plastic is doing to our environment — and us

It surrounds us. It is in every place we go, on the street, on the beach, and in the woods. We see it when we climb a mountain or go for a swim. It is evidence of our ingenious inventiveness, but also of our neglect. It is our own man-made friend but also our destructive enemy. It is causing permanent and irreversible harm to us and to the creatures of the planet. It is plastic.

Every time I open a plastic-wrapped package of food or a product, I feel a twinge of guilt, sadness and frustration. I know it is a strong, reliable, protective man-made material that has become very valuable for its many uses. It is used in every conceivable way, from wrapping our sandwiches to the chairs we sit on. But how can I recycle and dispose of it in a safe harmless way?

A recent report in The Independent newspaper noted that there are as many as eight million tons of plastic waste dumped into the oceans every year. There are, the report said, 51 trillion plastic micro particles — 500 times more than the stars in our galaxy spread all over the planet.

In the Arctic alone, that beautiful once pristine remote ocean, researchers have detected 300 billion bits of floating plastic micro-particles that are being eaten by fish.

Out of all the plastic produced in the past 80 years, 79 percent is dumped in landfills or burnt, or finds its way into the environment and the oceans. Only nine percent of it is recycled.

Earth Day is coming and we have to focus on what this low-cost, useful yet pernicious material is doing to our environment. It is so beneficial and yet so destructive. We have to change our ways and invent a plant-based biodegradable form of plastic.

We are so dependent on fossil oil-based plastic that some estimates say we humans have manufactured as much a 8.3 billion metric tons of it since 1950, or thereabouts. 

According to a report by the Ocean Conservatory, Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines are among the worst polluters. The Pasig River in Manila is one of the worst. Up to 60 percent of the plastic junk in the world comes from these Asian countries.

The durability of plastic is what gives it such appeal to manufacturers, but it is also its weakness. Fossil fuel-based plastic is not biodegradable. It will not rot away like wood, or break down for hundreds of years, and even then, it will remain a toxic substance that poisons the planet.

It does slowly disintegrate into micro-plastic particles and these become dust and cling to plants, float in the air, and are carried into the rivers and oceans. They attract other chemicals, pesticides, and residues that cling to the plastic particles and create an unseen dangerous toxic brew of poison.

The three witches around their cauldron in Shakespeare's Macbeth could never imagine such a toxic brew. Yes we are brewing trouble, "Double, double toil and trouble." This might be a cause of different cancers.

We are breathing these unseen and undetectable particles that can stick in our lungs and nostrils, causing conditions that can't be properly diagnosed. The planet and its inhabitants have not yet evolved to survive the onslaught of our own plastic poisoning. 

Plastic is derived from oil. The animals and our children's children will be ingesting it for centuries to come if we don't do something serious now to stop the pollution that is destroying creatures of our natural habitat and environment. We are stuck with it forever, it seems.

So if we live in a city environment, which most of us do, or in an industrial area, we have the smog or fumes from burning coal and oil and diesel to contend with. The plastic micro-particles tend to cling to them, according to new research by Professor Frank Kelly, from London's Kings College, who is a renowned researcher on environmental hazards.

There is too the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" and "The Eastern Garbage Patch." These are huge swats of oceans in the North Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean where plastic debris has accumulated into islands, some as big as France.

Fish absorb the micro particles. Turtles swallow plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish and most fish eat plankton but mistake the plastic micro-particles for food. We eat a lot of fish, which is considered healthier than eating meat. We should all be vegetarians to save the planet.

That's not possible nowadays because we humans consumed as much as 92.6 millions tons of fish in 2015 alone, according to a U.N. report. Many tons of fish are discarded and thrown back dead into the sea as not being commercially valuable in the Western world. What a shocking waste. But it means that those of us who do eat fish will be ingesting more plastic than ever before. Soon, we will be carrying the plastic particles that will disrupt our hormones and inner organs. We have not yet evolved as plastic-resistant creatures.

Yet there is hope in the development of plant-based plastics and packaging, but they are a long way from general use.

Some towns and cities are banning the use of plastic bags. There is a new CleanSeas campaign announced by the United Nations to clean the oceans of plastic debris. Let us give good examples by recycling our plastic at home and clean the environment of plastic and encourage our nations to join the campaign.

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.

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