Marg comes into the kitchen and begins emptying rubbish from her pockets into the bin.
Tom: “Marg, what are you doing?”.
Marg: “What does it look like? I’m putting rubbish in the bin. We’ve run out of council bags, so I’m putting it here in the kitchen until I get more bags this afternoon.”
Tom: “I mean, where did you get all that rubbish?”
Marg: “I pick it up in the reserve when I walk the dog. It helps keep things tidy and I worry about all the plastic going into the soil and the river.”
Tom: “Isn’t that the council’s job?”
Marg: “Which would you rather? Have the council pay someone to pick it up and pay for it in our rates, or just pick it up ourselves while we’re out there?”
Tom: “OK, I see your point about the council. But, what are you worried about with plastic? I understand plastic litter is ugly but it doesn’t hurt anything.”
Marg: “I’ve read that scientists have now found bacteria that feed on plastic and break it down into other chemicals.”
Tom: “Well, there you go! Plastic pollution solved! Just let the bacteria eat it all up. What’s there to worry about?
Marg: “I’ve also read that they are beginning to find that some of those breakdown chemicals are toxic.”
Google Assistant: “Scientists have found that bacteria that digest the common plastic polyurethane produce toxic chemicals, such as 4,4-methylenedianiline and 2,4-toluene diamine, which are possible carcinogens and pose environmental risk to aquatic and terrestrial species.”
Tom: “Umm, that can’t be good. So we need to stop using, what was it? Poly-aeroplane?
Google Assistant: “Polyurethane. It is used in the manufacture of sports shoes, nappies, kitchen sponges, furniture and foam insulation. It’s in many products.”
Marg: “So Tom, what happens if some new bacteria pops up that can feed off all the other plastics used in agriculture but leaves behind toxic chemicals? The soils might become too toxic to grow anything. Plastic in the oceans might end up turning fish toxic, like when we had that scare about mercury in fish. So what would people eat?”
Tom: “Well, I suppose we could grow our food in glasshouses. Don’t know that I could give up fish, though.”
Marg: “And, that’s not to mention the damage it might do to wildlife and the natural world. We could be poisoning the planet for generations to come!”
Tom: “It all sounds pretty scary, Marg. What we can do about it? I suppose giving up plastic would be the answer, but plastic is such great stuff – lightweight, strong, waterproof, doesn’t rot and can be shaped into most anything.”
Google Assistant: “One solution being considered by the New Zealand government is called ‘product stewardship’, whereby manufactures take responsibility for plastics in their products, recycling them at the end of their useful lives. It is part of what is called a ‘circular economy’”
Marg: “I certainly hope we can do something like that, Google. Otherwise, we’re in a bit like a Faustian Bargain.”
Tom: “A ‘fast-tin’ bargain?”
Marg: “It comes from an old medieval tale. A man named Faust made a deal with the devil to gain wealth and power in exchange for his soul.”
Tom: “So, what happened?”
Marg: “Faust messed everything up, hurt innocent people and went to hell.”
Tom: “So, how is that like plastics?”
Marg: “Plastics are great stuff, as you say. They add to our society’s wealth and power. But there is a price to pay later on, by future generations, for all the plastic pollution left behind.”
Tom: “Oh, I see what you mean. But we didn’t know that plastics were going to be so dangerous.”
Marg: “But we always knew that they were made from chemicals that weren’t natural, and we knew that many of those chemicals were bad for us.”
Tom: “Yeah, I suppose we should have known, if we’d stopped to think about it.”
Marg: “It’s a bit like climate change; petroleum has given society great wealth and power but, unfortunately, future generations will have to pay the price in terms of an unstable climate.”
Marg: “But, I suppose, unlike Faust, we can stop and do something about it by keeping plastics out of our environment and cutting our greenhouse gas emissions.”
Tom: “Well, Marg, from now on I’m all for recycling things made out of poly-aeroplane!”
These are a collection of opinion articles principally written by CKM member Tom Powell for the Marlborough Express. Tom is a retired geologist who came to New Zealand in 2004 to work in the geothermal industry on the North Island, is a New Zealand citizen and now lives in Blenheim. Some articles have been written by other CKM members, and their names appear with those articles.