Plastic Pollution

How a holiday in the Philippines highlighted our global crisis

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Did you watch Blue Planet Two? It was a truly magnificent series, assuming you too were one of the 17+ million viewers, wouldn’t you agree? Educational and informative of course, but alongside the nurturing tones of Sir David Attenborough’s poignant narration, your heart too raced watching the mysterious Bobbitt Worm; you willed the Puffins on from the safety of your sofa, shared the joy of playful, intelligent Dolphins, and, I hope, shared that same sense of pain of our suffering ocean. Your core too was twinged with sadness at those concluding words: ‘Good Luck, little Leatherback’.

It is exactly this which brings me to write these words. As the final episode aired I was 7,000 privileged miles away on the shores of the Philippine Islands. Between the outrageously curated, poised and posed beach-life photos, there was my own stark confrontation with this oceanic reality….

On our first night there, an American Philippine resident said to me, ‘living in New York I was fine, like, whatever, I do a bit of recycling, and now I’m confronted by my life choices every-day’. I could have written those words myself. I live in a home with carbon neutral heating, I recycle, I reduce meat consumption, but there was something about absolute confrontation of the issue to make it really pull at the fibres of your conscience.

Do I really need a sauce sachet for my chips or a plastic jam pot for toast when that decision will live on the planet for the 500 or so years? A straw? A plastic take-out tub?

The Philippines are a magnificent and wonderful country and I’d highly recommend them, the following words are not to discourage and it feels so important to say that. This is simply sharing a planetary crisis from a location that happened to bring it home to me. But this issue is Global. And it is here.

The state of many corals off the Philippine Islands is heart-breaking. I’m told a year ago that global warming saw the sea’s temperature reach 34oC in places and vast areas were bleached beyond repair.  Wildlife numbers are substantially lower than other tropical corals I’ve seen. The damage from tourist boats throwing their anchors at random is apparent in huge sections of shattered, white debris. Responsible, ecological tourism is essential and isn’t well established. There, tourist education of respect for the natural habitat included only advice to wear thick soled shoes to avoid cutting feat on sharp under-sea edges. It should have said that under no circumstances should you touch, disturb, damage or stand on any area of living coral.

I carried yogurt pots and other plastic debris in the straps of my bra back to boats as they tickled past my submerged limbs whilst swimming, and I took away bags of litter from beaches. A #2minbeachclean saw 16 pieces of litter collected on what you could easily perceive to have been a pristine beach.

You frequently see plastic litter bobbing along the surface of the water, and spilling into the ocean from poor sanitation and channels. I can’t condemn that, some people have so very little, but it serves as a reminder to our conscience. Especially from the safety of our often more privileged worlds. Education is essential and our acts as both responsible tourists, and as part of the problem from our own homes, play a huge role.

Seeing the vast machine-like trawlers which comb the ocean, plucking arbitrarily from a sensitive eco-system, tossing aside catch which does not meet quotas, makes you question sustainability.

– Our oceans aren’t as clean as they look –

Tourist Tours seeking photo opportunities and in so doing, feeding fish and even whale sharks for the best selfies, help you question your choices. These are done so in an unregulated, over-crowded way, showing disregard for ecological balance and nutritional welfare of a world which isn’t ours.

The Philippines are trying measures to control their plastic use. Litter-bed islands post signs asking for cooperation on government policies to reduce plastics; El Nido (a town on Palawan Island) has its own plastic-free policy in place from December this year and even McDonalds post signs asking not to take a straw unless it is ‘absolutely necessary’. Perhaps it’s time we took heed.

Regrettably the Blue Planet negated to use its impressive platform to encourage policy change from the 90-mega-companies responsible for 60% of all man made carbon emissions. Whilst lobbying and public pressure for big policy change is something essential that we all should become involved in, Attenborough’s’ words did pose one question directly to us – What can we, as individuals, do to save our Blue Planet?

With plastics pollution so prevalent in today’s news, and brands like Iceland announcing they will be the first to become entirely plastic-free, have you stopped to consider how your consumer choices may be affecting the welfare of our planet? Are you hoping to do anything to reduce your use of plastics? We’d love to see suggestions in the comments box below.

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  • Thanks for such a thought provoking piece Clare. We try to be eco friendly, recycling, choosing loose produce rather than packaged, using eco-friendly cleaning products, eating meat free at least 3 days a week. However your post has certainly highlighted to me that more can be done, and that really it should become a focus for our family this year rather than something we just do. I’d love to explore more ways of cutting down on our waste and plastic use especially as we educate our (Blue Planet obsessed) son xx

  • Thank you, Clare! Your photos from Philippines and subsequent ALL group discussion threads have really inspired me to make different consumer choices.

    I was heartbroken to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year image of a seahorse holding a plastic cotton bud but heartened by Scotland being the first country to ban the use of them. I won’t be purchasing them again or my Clarins refiner that uses microbeads; I’ll be decanting yoghurt in the morning into a metal tub I have rather than use indivisible cartons; I’m purchasing a reusable coffee cup; I’ll reduce use of plastic wherever I can. I want to do whatever I can – if we all do whatever we can, then surely it will help. It takes a village (and a village and a village on a global scale).

    I think people’s awareness has heightened recently and it’s time to take steps.

  • Thank you Clare for such an insightful post. After following various posts regarding plastic recently, and watching Blue Planet 2, we have decided to make some small changes in our own lives.

    We’ve recently bought glass water bottles to replace one use bottles, changed to glass milk bottle delivery from cartons and banned buying plastic carrier bags from the shop.

    We’re hoping if we slowly implement changes, eventually we will make a big difference.

  • Hi Clare,
    Your post about the Philippines really struck a chord with me, especially the part about stuffing your bra with rubbish you came across and how there is a lack of education and money there driving the continued misuse of the coral and I immediately told my partner about it. We have been thinking a lot about preserving wildlife since before Blue Planet, we are keen to save the bees for example. After Blue Planet 2 it really made us think about our plastic consumption. I need straws for my Fibromyalgic condition but I always reuse them and am looking into wooden ones. We use drinking bottles at work and try to pick groceries which both satisfy our budget but also has the least packaging. We have reusable bags instead of carrier bags – but there is so much more we could do!
    Thank you foe writing this piece and really bringing this to the forefront of our consciences.

  • A timely post on a very important topic. It really brings it home to see pictures of ugly plastic rubbish in such a beautiful place.
    I think it’s really admirable and worthwhile for individuals and families in the developed world to reduce use of disposable plastics as much as possible. But I do wonder whether this will truly have a significant impact on the amount of waste created. Of course if one person makes changes, they are likely to influence those around them to do the same (as my friend did for me when she undertook the challenge of a ‘plastic-free month’ for the Marine Conservation Society).
    However, ultimately I agree with Clare that large companies are in the best position to change behaviour and reduce waste, and that is only realistically going to come about through government policy change. I suppose what I’m saying is that if we want to see change we have a responsibility not only to change our own behaviour, but to lobby companies and (especially) government to make it a priority. If we are spending our own time and money trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle, why not take it one step further and write to our MP or the manager of the canteen at work to demand change?
    Thanks for highlighting this issue – it’s definitely given me food for thought!

  • This makes me so sad. Why do we do this to our world? Like you, Claire, I’ve travelled to a number of parts of the world and seen this first hand. I remember a cruise at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam which made me sick to my stomach because of the way we as a human race have ruined such a beautiful part of the world.
    I try to reduce plastics but, as an individual, it’s really hard. We must lobby governments and big corporations to act – from coffee shops using ‘recyclable cups to supermarkets wrapping everything in plastic.
    I don’t know how we ended up in such a mess but we must act before it’s too late.

  • It’s just gross basically. You only need to watch Bear Grylls The Island where participants manage to find pairs of Crocs/faux Crocs, toothbrushes, water vessels, cutlery to survive!! As well as doing what we can to reduce our personal waste, we must teach our children about it early on. It’s not enough to just recycle.

  • This is so depressing and I can report that I have found bits of hard plastic on the shore of the ‘pristine’ beach near me on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica which doesn’t even have a lot of tourism. I am going to do my own beach clean here and have tried to banish plastic from my home back in the UK but we all need to do more and urgently.

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