LET’s talk about plastics again, as the issues surrounding these convenient materials have become something of a new “passion” (some might call it an obsession) of mine. I read recently in some social media posts that when plastic wrappers and bags were introduced about half a century ago, they were meant to replace the then mostly paper counterparts, and thereby reduce the cutting down of trees. So, the original intention of adopting plastics, in addition to being convenient and cheaper, was actually quite lofty and environmentally conscious.
Since then, plastics have taken over the world by leaps and bounds, and especially so in developing countries. When I was growing up in Sabah, I can vividly remember how groceries and foodstuff were almost always stuffed into some sort of plastic bags and wraps. My favorite breakfast fried noodles in the market, affectionately and not impractically called “economic mee” (as it has scarcely any ingredient other than noodles and the thick soy sauce that it was fried with, and is thus very economically affordable), was scooped up with the steel spatula and dumped, scorchingly hot, directly onto the clear plastic sheet with a newspaper layer under it. And we usually eat the freshly fried noodles right off the plastic sheet. Never mind that the heat might have “melted” some of the plastic surface, which was then inadvertently “consumed” by us.
And the “colorful” but non-branded street-side soda drinks (the health efficacy of which is perhaps a subject for another time), which as a kid I almost always craved for, was also usually ladled into plastic bags from which we drank them straight. If the drinks were hot ones such as coffee, tea or some herbal concoction, they were typically ladled into styrofoam cups. Cold drinks were poured into styrofoam cups too, in addition to clear plastic “glasses.” I still see the same scene happening in Sabah and also on the streets of Manila when I visited last year. Even in supposedly more developed places such as Singapore and Hong Kong where I worked much later, styrofoam is still widely used for cups and also lunch boxes. Never mind, again, that the intense heat from the food or drinks might “melt” away the plastic containers and some plastic particles may be consumed by us as we plunge another mouthful of delicious takeaway food into our otherwise picky mouths.
When I arrived in California from Sabah for further studies, I was actually quite surprised to find that paper was still very much in use as wrappers and bags. Groceries were usually packed into large paper bags, which people hugged or ferried with pushcarts to their cars. Plastic bags were readily available, but were usually reserved for heavier items or those (such as frozen food or watery produce) that might soak through the paper bags and thus compromise their structural integrity. Paper cups were widely used instead of styrofoam ones, and baked goods such as breads and bagels were wrapped in paper too. Even Chinese takeout food was in paper boxes, albeit the waxed kind (the health concerns of which I have yet to fathom). So in a sense I had to reorient myself during my California years to live perhaps a less “plastic” life. Plastics were by no means absent in America, but they were much more sensibly utilized, often as a last resort or out of sheer necessity, which I thought was a practical compromise.
Coming back to Asia, I had to undergo a major “plastic” reverse culture shock. There are at least two trends of “plastic” development that I find particularly alarming. The first is the bountiful production of what I would pseudo-scientifically call “cheap” plastics. These are low-quality plastics meant for single usage. It is true that plastics would take millenniums to decompose and biodegrade and are thus hazardous to the environment. But particularly sinister and harmful, I think, is this kind of cheap, single-use plastics, which do disintegrate, but into microplastic particles, which are then easily absorbed by animals and plants alike, with dire consequences for long-term health, especially when prolonged exposure to these plastics is the order of the day. For example, they clog river mouths and cover coastal ocean surfaces, as is the case with Sabah and I am sure many Philippine islands as well. As they slowly disintegrate, the microplastic particles are gradually released, and are unwittingly consumed by fishes, which are in turn consumed by unsuspicious humans at the end of the food chain. Imagine these microplastic particles then settling down “comfortably” in our bodies and not just those of the fishes! I cringe whenever I think about this while enjoying Sabah’s bountiful seafood.
A second alarming “plastic” development trend is one that is closely linked to the first, namely the casual and cavalier attitude that most of us have when it comes to the “plastic” menace. We treat plastic containers as first and not last resort when it comes to wrapping or depositing stuff, perhaps because the single-use type of plastics is so cheap. And we happily live up to the single-use adage, throwing away the plastic wraps or bags after, well, a single use. When things come cheap, we do not value them; we just cast them away. Out of sight, out of mind. Again, never mind the “plastic” damage to both the environment or our own health. Oh well, perhaps there is a second use of the plastic bags — as garbage disposal bags. In many coastal settlements of Sabah, I have seen residents stuffing garbage into plastic bags, and then flinging the usually tied bags into the sea! Perhaps they were expecting that the rising tides would “do nature’s course” and wash away these garbage bags. These bags do eventually disintegrate and their smelly contents are scattered first in the open seas, but then the same tides would bring them back to accumulate around the stilts of these coastal settlements, forcing the residents to essentially live above their own garbage and plastic heaps. Such is the recurring patterns of plastic usage in many parts of our world, and the “plastic” tide does not seem to subside yet.