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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

It's in our power to turn the tide on plastic pollution

I have traditionally taken a very ad hoc approach to this whole issue but that approach is just not good enough anymore.

This 'National Georgraphic' image captures in one unassuming click how our oceans are mindlessly being choked by plastic waste. Courtesy National Geographic
This 'National Georgraphic' image captures in one unassuming click how our oceans are mindlessly being choked by plastic waste. Courtesy National Geographic

I remember when I first came across this photo in the hallowed halls of London’s Natural History Museum, where it formed part of the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. There were plenty of images on show that chronicled mankind’s steady destruction of our planet’s natural habitats (including one photo of a slaughtered black rhino bull with its horn sliced off that haunts me to this day), but there was something about this particular picture that made everyone stop in their tracks. It’s the heartbreaking incongruity of it, I think, and the fact that this seahorse is so tiny and so delicate and so in need of our protection.

And yet, our unquenching desire for all things plastic seemingly supersedes any desire to protect, even when it comes to the most vulnerable creatures on earth.

There has been much talk in recent months about the catastrophic effects of plastic pollution on our environment and the picture of this tiny Q-Tip-dragging seahorse has done the rounds. It captures, in one quiet, unassuming swoop, how our oceans are being mindlessly choked with plastic waste.

In its June issue, National Geographic dedicated most of its pages to the topic of plastic pollution and used this seahorse to illustrate the point. “It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it,” photographer Justin Hofman, who came across the seahorse while snorkelling off the coast of Indonesia, said on Instagram.

“What started as an opportunity to photograph a cute little seahorse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage. This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans.”

This week, The National launched a series of stories highlighting the key problem areas of plastic pollution and what’s being done in the UAE to mitigate their effects. In his first article, my colleague Kevin Hackett focused on the scourge that is plastic bags, ahead of International Plastic Bag Free Day on July 3.

In the UAE, supermarket chains Spinneys and Waitrose are currently trialling an initiative that requires customers to pay for single-use plastic bags in select stores. I appreciate the effort but, having just been in London where this is common practise, it seems like we should be well past the trial stage by now. These companies are worried about how customers will react to the notion – but it is up to us as consumers to demand such initiatives, rather than impede them.

As the organisers of International Plastic Bag Free Day want to remind us this week, on average, one million plastic bags are in use around the world every minute. And they are utilised for barely 25 minutes in total but take between 100 and 500 years to disintegrate.

I have traditionally taken a very ad hoc approach to this whole issue. Sometimes I’ll separate my plastics and take them to the recycling bin in my neighbourhood; sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I’ll remember to take my reusable bags to the supermarket, sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I’ll remember to tell the waiter that I don’t need a straw; sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I’ll carry a reusable water bottle; sometimes I won’t. But that approach is just not good enough anymore.

I am currently making a far more concerted effort to recycle and have set up a plastics-only bin just outside my front door to force myself to be more mindful. But I’m also aware that recycling should really only be a last resort. In the decades-old mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle”, it’s no coincidence that recycle comes last and reduce comes first.

Nonetheless, I’d recommend setting up that dedicated bin – you’ll be horrified to discover just how much plastic you are using every week. It’ll make you think much harder about what kinds of products you buy and the packaging they come in, and what you can do to reduce that mountain of plastic. The tiniest changes in behaviour can help – when you next order delivery, ask them not to send any plastic cutlery along with your meal; try to support establishments that have completely banned the use of plastic straws (Coya, Folly by Nick & Scott, Bistro Des Arts, Reform Social & Grill are a few examples); keep reusable shopping bags close at hand, and support supermarkets that charge for single-use bags; invest in a reusable water bottle; and minimise the amount of packaging that you buy (opt for a bar of soap rather than liquid soap, for example).

One of the most pertinent points that Kevin made in last week’s article was the following: “Unlike issues such as climate change and deforestation, which seem too overwhelming to address, it’s in our power to figuratively and literally turn the tide on plastic pollution.”

Basically, this one’s on us.

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Read more of Selina's thoughts:

The eternal quest for the perfect work-life balance

Paying tribute to the extraordinary life of my dad, the ultimate expat

Why eating meat makes me feel like a hypocrite

Phone etiquette? I need some guidelines please

After a decade, Dubai feels like it has come of age

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