WHENEVER I’m in Davao City and have spare time, I like to hang out at the Abreeza Mall. The last time, however, my hostess suggested we visit D’Bone Collector Museum instead. With the heavy afternoon traffic, it took us almost an hour to reach the place. Trading Boulevard, Bucana, where the museum is located is narrow and noisy, full of trisikads, two-way traffic, stores, and pedestrians, but once inside the museum we were transported to another place, another state of mind.
The items on display are the skeletons of animals (and one human): from something as ordinary as dogs to snakes and whales, and tiny creatures like tarsiers and birds. Strangely enough, I didn’t find it creepy at all. The skeletons remind us that we all – human or animal alike – are made of the same materials: skin, flesh and bones. We live and we die. And one day, only the bones are left, whether one was a small monkey or a powerful politician, a famous racing horse or pauper.
What lingered, however, were the sad stories of Alcoholic, Orbit and Lost. Alcoholic was a false killer whale whose intestines were blocked when she ate the top of a plastic bottle that had contained alcohol. Orbit, a pygmy sperm whale, suffered the same fate when he ate an Orbit chewing gum bottle thinking it was a squid. Lost, on the other hand, was a Blainville’s beaked whale. Her body just couldn’t take any more garbage: Her stomach was literally full of trash: plastic balls, plastic candy wrappers, hair clips, you name it, “all carelessly thrown away and made it to (Lost’s) ocean.” The proprietors of D’Bone Collector Museum named the whale Lost because “she has lost so much in the Davao Gulf. Her baby, her food, and her life.”
In this way, the museum gives an identity to the otherwise anonymous victims of the destruction caused by the ever growing volume of trash that litters the oceans. Research suggests that as much as 80 percent of this trash “actually originates on land” and either is “swept in from the coastline or carried to the rivers … during heavy rain or storm drains and sewer overflows” (Sarah Engler, National Resources Defense Committee, 2016).
Whales are not the only victims of this pollution. Oceana reports from Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean that baby albatrosses are fed plastic garbage by their parents who “accidentally swallow floating plastic” as they “feed along the surface on squid, krill and fish eggs.” “(Adult albatrosses) unwittingly bring an estimated 10,000 pounds of marine debris to Midway every year,” writes Oceana’s Alayna Alvarez in her blog. From Wikepedia I learned that “20 tons of plastic debris washes up on Midway every year.”
Tiny Midway is a place famous for its role in the Pacific War. It was here, in early June 1942, that the US military scored its first victory over the Japanese imperial forces. The battle became a turning point in the Pacific War. The atoll was made a national wildlife refuge 31 years ago but now, Alvarez laments, it feels more like a refuge for trash. According to Wikipedia, “Midway Atoll is a critical habitat in the central Pacific Ocean which includes breeding habitat for 17 seabird species.”
Mindless consumption and careless disposal of plastic have become a global environmental crisis.
Of course, this is not the first or only case of pollution causing harm far from its point of origin. Thirty years ago, researchers found that Inuit mothers in the Arctic region of Canada had five times the levels of toxic, human-made chemicals in their bodies as other Canadians (National Geographic News, 2004). There were no industries or other sources of pollution in the Inuit communities. The chemicals, also known as persistent organic pollutants, were released into the air by incineration or combustion. Transported by wind and current the chemicals ended up far away, contaminating fish and bigger sea animals like walruses, whales and seals that comprise the traditional diet of the indigenous peoples or Inuit of Arctic Canada. These chemicals aren’t destroyed by burning and don’t degrade in nature. They accumulate in living creatures and end up in human bodies where nursing mothers pass it on to their babies through their breast milk.
We will all be reduced to bones one day, pollution or no pollution. But we owe it to life itself, to Planet Earth, to take responsibility and to make an effort to minimize our own, individual contribution to this collective mayhem. This isn’t about garbage disposal: We should take responsibility for what we consume and what we throw away. Plastic and other harmful substances should be removed from the waste stream altogether. Each one of us can make conscious decisions towards this goal, every day. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.