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The devastating effect of discarded Christmas plastic

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Over the European holiday season, the Mediterranean Sea’s plastic load rockets by a whopping 40%, as people buy then simply ditch lilos, inflatable pool toys, food packaging and other plastics.  

It’s not quite the Madonna and Child theme we usually focus on this season, but the year’s most powerful imagery was surely David Attenborough’s footage of a mother albatross feeding her chick bits of plastic.

This was a cut-through moment. No bird, let alone one as magnificent as an albatross, would feed plastic waste to her offspring by nature’s imperative. It is humankind that has created this cruel hazard. Even among the dwindling ranks of those who maintain a Three Wise Monkeys stance on global warming, there are no excuses for what plastic waste is doing to our fellow creatures.

It’s possibly no coincidence that this December, the traditional shopping orgy has been slower than usual to get cracking. Increasingly, the world’s Christmas-build-up binges, “black Friday” and “cyber Monday” sales, are seen as socially and environmentally irresponsible. ’Tis the season to see folly. Buying cheap, disposable tat will soon seem as antisocial and stupid as smoking or drink-driving.

The loving exchanging of thoughtful presents can, of course, bring great pleasure. Yet the fact that our seasonal excesses are hurting the planet is our ultimate cue for a reset.

The World Wide Fund for Nature reported this year that in the European holiday season, the Mediterranean Sea’s plastic load rockets by a whopping 40%, as people buy then simply ditch lilos, inflatable pool toys, food packaging and other plastics. Of the 730 tonnes a day of plastic entering the Mediterranean alone, what goes around comes around. When humans eat seafood, we’re now almost certainly eating micro-plastics, too.

Another seasonal motif: two jandals were amid 5.9kg of plastic found in a dead whale’s stomach in Indonesia this year. A global study has found significant plastic waste in every species of turtle.

We’re on a vertiginous learning curve about the limits of climate-change “mitigation”. Recycling, for instance, won’t do the trick. Most of our plastic can’t be recycled, and that which can often involves creating further harmful emissions in the process.

Yet Christmas doesn’t have to be a time of careless waste. Who doesn’t enjoy the ritual of getting out the old but still much-loved decorations? The joys of home-made gifts are once more in vogue. Even ordinarily banal presents such as socks or confectionery become treasures when they’re handcrafted with someone’s skill and discernment, rather than mass-produced using polluting synthetic fibres or palm oil.

It’s not just those consciously dreaming of a green Christmas who would enjoy less of the December shopping stress and more time spent relaxing. We could all make the healthy decision this New Year to drive a little less and walk more. Having made a good start on reversing the degradation of our rivers and the decline of our native-bird populations, we’ve plenty of outdoor recreation waiting – no plastic required.

Alternatively, we could have toddler-esque tantrums about our world changing in inconvenient and expensive ways, à la France’s gilets jaunes. But with climate change on track drastically to ramp up its already life-threatening cycle of wild fires, extreme storms and freakish temperatures in just 12 years’ time, angry rioting seems a waste of precious time.

Instead, we can keep making a series of reasonably easy trade-offs such as the plastic-bag ban. We can also support green technology. There are promising international trends. In Britain, fewer people are driving or even getting licences, car sales are barely growing and distance driven is falling. The uptake of electric vehicles is growing exponentially worldwide.

Most New Zealanders have ready access to rivers, beaches and the bush, where we celebrate our green Christmas. This year, we will be conscious also of our closeness to Antarctica, where there is alarming news of glaciers in the east of the continent melted by warming seas. East Antarctica stores a vast amount of ice, which, if lost, would raise global sea levels by tens of metres and drown coastal settlements the world over. Ice in West Antarctica is already in serious retreat, with a threefold acceleration in recent years. In April, researchers found that hidden melting was growing, putting Antarctica on track to overtake Greenland as the biggest contributor to sea-level rise.

The best Christmas gift to ourselves this year would be a real cut in carbon emissions.

This editorial was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.