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  • Will Appleyard

A Boring Plastic Story

This subject has actually become quite boring. If we consume enough news about the same subject month after month, year after year then we just switch off. Whatever the subject – it just gets just boring. We become desensitised.

A Yucatan beach, Mexico

I’m bored with hearing about (dare I say it) Brexit and no longer choose to read about it. I’m bored with seeing images of the world’s conflicts and no longer choose to read about them. So, how do we keep the delivery of all this important information fresh? So fresh that it call us to action? Real action. Only by seeing the subject of a story for ourselves, in the wild, away from our many screens, I believe, do we really become genuinely, emotionally affected.

This is most probably another one of those stories, it’s another plastic based piece – maybe scrolled past on a Facebook feed or the such like, but feel compelled to write about it, having been greeted with the subject’s cause first hand on far too many occasions.

Tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever that inevitable time comes, whilst walking down the aisle of your local supermarket, apart from your list of desired items, have one word in your mind – packaging. Look at the shelved items as waste waiting to happen - rather than new goods waiting to be bought. And then, think about how often those shelves are emptied, restocked, emptied and restocked and look again at my images.

Portugal, a plastic tide-line

I have travelled the world extensively working on scuba diving projects for many years and have seen first hand beach, reef and wildlife bound waste rise dramatically. And, although the message is being a delivered again and again via “social” and online media feeds, I believe that the message is being absorbed by too few. Like a grumpy neighbour far too old for my years, I find myself muttering internally when walking past the “single use brigade”. “You need a straw to drink that do you?” “You can’t eat an ice cream in an edible cone without a plastic spoon?” “What’s wrong with those loose tomato’s, right next to the prepackaged ones?” These thoughts have, until now, been just that – thoughts. Until recently, when I vocally questioned a man selling chopped and peeled fruit in plastic containers far bigger than what they were containing. I don’t know who was more shocked – me at actually vocalising my opinion, or him, at me questioning what he was selling. I cycled off.

Snorkelling off a beach in Spain – hundreds of coin sized pieces of what was once assorted plastic bags move too and fro in the swell and among these whole plastic bags waiting to be broken down against rocks and in the surf. I count five, six seven, maybe more. Around me, scores of other people enjoy the water - swimming and snorkelling, but do they see what I see and do they consider where those items came from and how they might possibly do their bit to prevent this?

Goby in a bottle

On a 2017 journalism assignment to the Philippines I covered a “muck diving” photography contest. Muck diving photography involves seeking out tiny critters on an otherwise barren seabed and photographing them close up with a macro lens. Much of the most this photogenic wildlife here was to be found among rocks, sunken driftwood and - discarded packaging lying on the seabed. Goby, a fish species living in bottles and cans, a weeny shrimp living on a lost flip flop and other beasties living in crisp packets and even nappies were all common sightings. The magnitude of this ocean-based waste was at best, horrifying. I questioned the scene when back aboard the boat, post dive. “Yeah, that’s muck diving”, exclaimed one macro photographer I quizzed.

I swing in a hammock above the sand, among palm trees, situated between a dive centre and the shoreline on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It’s 7:30am, I am up early to watch the sunrise and once that has been and gone, I take pictures of the tide line of plastic items like someone with a macabre fascination for car accidents. The plastic – lids, bottles, yoghurts pots, plastic toy parts and whatever else the smaller items are / were. It’s been here for three days now – are the dive centre oblivious to it? Does it wash up so much that they have given up cleaning it? I don’t question it – but wish that I had with hindsight.

"Muck diving"

I head back to Spain later that year and swing through Portugal first, park my van by a vast, sweeping sandy beach and just before the cliffs meet the sand a tide line has formed. This time, upon inspection the items are small – “nurdles” are present – these are rice-sized pieces and the beginnings of life for all of our plastic products – pre factory compound. They have most probably come from a shipping container, broken open somewhere out in the Atlantic and washed to shore. Bottle tops, plastic lollypop sticks, straws and plastic cutlery – it’s all here. The stuff you see on your Facebook campaigns. The stuff we are asked to boycott.

I (sadly) begin to build a collection of plastic based photographs in a folder on my computer’s desktop, almost becoming obsessed with the subject. Egypt, Maldives, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Philippines – their seas and oceans have an over whelming problem and a familiar story playing out from country to country, beach to beach and from to reef to open ocean.

If I’m not travelling to a destination in my van, I’m flying there. I have stopped consuming (where possible) during flights now. I take my own water bottle and fill it up before boarding the plane. I don’t buy hot drinks either, which come with a plastic lid, a plastic stirrer, plastic milk containers and a plastic cup to hold all the plastic waste in afterwards. Long haul - flight attendants offer us passengers a new plastic cup with each cold drink we consume. And so, the mountain of plastic waste is building above us too, not just at sea level.

The Red Sea, Egypt

With an almost obsessive fascination, I observe the way we consume and discard - I sit and watch folks taking that plastic stirrer or going for the most conveniently packaged fruit and veg, as if the loose stuff could be contaminated or even touched by someone! I watch as the person in front of me loads their six-pack of bottled water onto the conveyer and I wondered to myself – do I care about this subject too much?

It's believed that less than 9% of plastic globally is actually recycled, owing to too few recycling facilities vs the rate at which we use and discard, meaning that more “recycled bound waste” goes to landfill, burnt, shipped to another destination or wherever else.

Everything from toys, food packaging to medical waste was found here

I have chosen to think about and act on less regarding the “recycle” part of the “reduce, re-use, recycle” motto and focus more of my efforts toward the other two actions, particularly “reduce” instead and challenge any single use items that are pushed my way when making that purchase. There is so much more that we can do than simply “recycle” – which now should be the last resort.

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