In the last few years the problem of plastic pollution has become a prominent issue in popular media. It is a huge problem. The website of Surfers Against Sewage reports that:
In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tons of plastic. This is set to double by 2034.
Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans.
There may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean. Weighing up to 269,000 tonnes.
The figures are so horrifying that they seem unreal. But the reality hit home when I received a recent issue of a library journal a few days ago. I noticed that it was wrapped in a double layer of quite heavy transparent plastic. In fact, I realize now, every LIS journal I receive, along with every other printed magazine and newsletter, comes wrapped in plastic. No doubt journals in which articles about plastic pollution appear are also shipped in plastic wrappers…
Where does the discarded plastic end up? We put it in the “recyclables” bin, but that by no means guarantees that it is recycled. Is this plastic recyclable? Does our local authority have the capacity to recycle it? Here in South Africa – and no doubt in other parts of the developing world – municipal waste disposal services are not necessarily coping with the volume of waste. Neighbours say that we need not bother to separate our waste, since it all ends up in the same local landfill. That shouldn’t be, but it’s a fact of life in many parts.
This shows that, whilst recycling is important, it is not the complete solution. The proliferation of plastic should be reduced at source. Journals and magazines should again be wrapped in paper. And it would be even better, faster and more economical, to disseminate them online to all but the declining number of subscribers who have no connectivity. Could the LIS community not set an example?
Afterthought: IFLA’s beautifully produced annual report still comes in a good quality paper envelope.