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30.11.2017

Plastic Planet | Connecting with Culture

I wonder if you are one of the more than 13 million viewers transfixed by the new BBC natural history series ‘Blue Planet II’?

If you’ve been watching, perhaps, like me, you have experienced some mixed emotions. The beauty and complexity of creation has filled me awe. It speaks volumes about the character of the one who spoke it into being; as Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made’. (1:20)

And then we are confronted with what we, God’s stewards, have done to this world. ‘The sea is his, for he made it,’ proclaims the psalmist (95:5). And we have filled it with plastic.

A 2015 study in the journal Science reported that 8 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the world’s oceans every year. The camera crews filming for ‘Blue Planet’ found sweet wrappers, bottles, bags, and toys everywhere they went, no matter how remote. Executive producer James Honeyborne told BBC Newsbeat, ‘Some scientists think that entanglement in marine plastic is the most significant welfare threat of human origin in the ocean. In some cases it can also be a conservation threat to entire populations.’

What are we to do with this information? One option not open to us is turning off the TV and forgetting about it. The Bible is clear that God loves and cares passionately about the welfare of his entire creation. As Peter Harris, co-founder of A Rocha says, ‘Our work and worship and witness will be incomplete until our responsibility to conserve the glorious, God-given diversity of earth’s creatures becomes second nature.’

A simple first step might be to commit to reducing our use of plastic. There are plenty of reusable coffee cups and water bottles available to buy. We can take cloth bags with us when we go grocery shopping. We can avoid pre-packaged fruit and veg. These things might seem like minor tweaks, but the shameful giant garbage patches in our oceans are made up of individual pieces of plastic of the kind we use thoughtlessly every day. And nothing we do in a spirit of worship, however small, is insignificant in the eyes of God.

Jo Swinney
Jo is an author, speaker, and editor of the Bible Society’s Lyfe Journal. Her latest book is Home: the quest to belong (Hodder & Stoughton).

 

This year’s John Stott London Lecture, on ‘Climate and Faith in the Public Arena’, by Professor Katharine Hayhoe, can be viewed here: Climate and Faith in the Public Arena.

Comments

  1. Reducing the amount of waste we produce is a worthy goal. However, according to research, most of the plastic in the oceans was washed down rivers from developing countries like China and India, which perhaps have inadequate waste disposal services or practices. The whole of Europe only contributed 0.2% to the total. While it is important to take responsibility for our own personal impact, it is also important not to feel an inordinate amount of guilt for a problem that is mostly not caused by us and can’t be fixed by our individual actions.

    Source: https://qz.com/1004589/80-of-plastic-in-the-ocean-can-be-traced-back-to-asias-rivers-led-by-china-indonesia-myanmar-a-study-by-netherland-based-the-ocean-cleanup-found/

    By Sally-Jo Mitchell - 1st December 2017
  2. Yes, we have taken that ‘simple first step’ and much more. But manufacturers and shops are also to blame. Why use plastic instead of paper/recyclables . . or nothing? The packaging industry is immoral.
    There’s also the disposal issue. Some councils don’t have full recycling facilities. Waste bins are often hard to find and don’t separate materials. And where does all the litter on roadsides come from? Much of that can end up in marine environments. The answer is much bigger than personal lifestyle, although that will also help.

    By Dr D J Graham - 1st December 2017
  3. Sally-Jo, your reasoning should actually make us all the more determined to act! Why are India and China sources of such pollution? Because we in the West have held up examples of excessive consumption and of unsustainable development and their large populations have aspired to be more like us. They have also become the major producers (with all the attendant pollution that entails) of much that we consume. So rather than shift the ‘guilt’ onto other nations we should actually acknowledge our own very significant part in the problems to which they are now also contributing.

    By Nicky Bull - 1st December 2017
  4. We can’t solve the problem by our individual actions but we can avoid adding to the problem by our actions. That surely is the very least we can do to honour our creator God.

    By David Morgan - 1st December 2017
  5. The 5p charge on plastic bags has reduced the number of plastic bags on UK beaches but there has been an increase in plastic bottles. I would agree with Jo and say that we do need to act and that is an integral part of our relationship with God.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/22/number-of-plastic-bags-found-on-uk-beaches-falls-by-nearly-half

    I’m trying to reduce our family’s use of plastics (particularly single use) but sometimes it can be very hard to find an alternative.

    By Dido Pilgrim - 1st December 2017
  6. Excellent piece & thought-provoking comments too, thanks!

    By Bruce Gulland - 1st December 2017
  7. Thank you for an interesting debate. What would really help is if manufacturers could provide a globally standardised logo to indicate if packaging can be recycled. This will need global standardisation e.g the ISO scheme – and must be legally enforcable. We also need to put pressure e.g. on the coffee shops as I believe all their disposable cups cannot be recycled. Anyone know any lobbyists out there?

    In the meantime we can “all do our bit” – as God places on us individual responsibility, whatever the actions of others.

    Have good weekends all!
    Jane

    By Jane - 1st December 2017
  8. I agree with Sally-Jo Mitchell, and disagree with Nicky Bull.

    By Jonathan Cornthwaite - 1st December 2017
  9. Thank you, Jo, for such a thoughtful & provocative piece. I agree with Nicky. God both designed us in the image of Himself and also commanded us to love both Him and also each other. And He set us up as stewards of His magnificent creation. So the whole of the human race is mutually connected and has a shared mandate to care for our world, without reference to geography, borders or governments. Whatever one person does, or does not do, has an impact on everyone else. So the problem of plastic pollution is down to each one of us to do what we can to solve – it is not something that we can leave to someone else ‘over there’ to fix on our behalf.

    By David Henderson - 1st December 2017
  10. Thanks so much for this! Looking forward to BluePlanet II coming to the USA in 2018. A Rocha has been working on the issue of marine plastic pollution the past few years. You might be interested in our webpage on it, which includes downloads of factsheets on microplastics in multiple languages – http://www.arocha.org/microplastics.

    Some ideas we have had on how to reduce plastic use, some of which are mentioned above:

    ● Stop purchasing single-use plastic bottles. Do you really need to buy a disposible water bottle? Planning ahead to bring your own can hugely reduce this source of waste.
    ● Similarly – bring a coffee cup to church or even to the coffee shop.
    ● Shopping presents many opportunities for plastic reduction. Shop in bigger doses: a bigger bottle of shampoo replaces two smaller ones and has less plastic (and also less emissions from transportation). Take a reusable bag (or similar) with you when you shop, and refuse shopping bags (with a smile!). When shopping for ingredients avoid individually wrapped items. By doing this and cooking your own meals you will produce much less plastic litter; all the more so if you shop at a farmers’ market instead of a supermarket.
    ● Stop using plastic straws. Don’t buy them, provide them or use them. If you really need a straw, there are paper, glass or metal straws available that can be washed between uses.
    ● A major source of microplastic pollution is from clothing made of synthetic material. Buy clothing made from natural fibres.
    ● Look at the ingredients in your cosmetics, toothpaste and shower gels. You just may be rubbing yourself with plastic microbeads. Buy products without these additives. (See a full list of microplastic ingredients from the Beat the Microbead campaign.)
    ● It’s more fun to do this together! Find small communities where you can discuss your issues, and celebrate your small victories; for instance, at home with family members, with your fellow church members, or at work with your colleagues.

    Keep an eye out early next year for our launch of resources on how to reduce plastic use and importantly, get involved in clean ups and even citizen science research.

    By Dr Robert Sluka - 1st December 2017
  11. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that we are stewards of this great work of art (the cultural mandate) I am totally against the guilt trip that so many are levelling on those of us who happen to live in the West. It is true that much of the pollution comes from ‘developing’ nations not because they are developing (only) but because their culture is different. I have experienced that first hand in Africa. The West has done more towards cleaning up and combating pollution than most others.
    Besides, the most uncomfortable aspect of all of these ‘natural history’ programmes is their prodigious propaganda for chance, mutation and evolution as ‘creator’. Unfortunately such a view leads many to worship the earth as Gaia and misanthropy prospers. Never forget who this earth was made for, it is not an end in itself. And whilst I re-affirm my belief in stewardship, people are the most important and the culture that treats people in ways that affirm their being made in the image of God is the one that I want for this earth.

    By Mike McMeekan - 2nd December 2017
  12. Mike, I am not sure that the question of who ‘the earth is made for’ is affected by any particular view of its origins. Arguing about that could distract us from the clear message of Colossians 1 among many other passages which it clear that ‘all things’ are for ‘Christ’. So whatever our culture, biblically-minded Christians will care for God’s creation as a normal part of their worship, their work, and their witness. Neither am I sure than many ‘worship the earth as Gaia and misanthropy prospers.’ I get around the world a fair bit, often in environmental circles, and don’t meet more than an extreme handful. But I am sure that we should be deeply saddened that many millions of Christians are absolutely unconcerned that we are abusing the Lord’s loving handiwork in his creation, and not least by filling the seas with plastic.

    By Peter Harris - 3rd December 2017
  13. Super comments from many , well said Peter and thank You to Dr Robert Sluka for his input.So many useful ideas, Bless you.
    I think that we must All be aware of our own environment. I recycle and reuse whenever I can , think before I purchase. We need to read and learn from others who are expert or simply know and understand more about our planet. Can’t we all just value our surroundings and be Thankful for this beautiful world that we have been given, what a gift!
    So let us be GREAT stewards of our planet.

    By Melanie Henderson - 3rd December 2017
  14. As a Christian with 30 years experience in the packaging industry, twenty of that specialising in paper based products I’d add a few comments to those made above. The industry has actively developed lighter products which minimise their impact upon the environment during my entire tenure. To dismiss it as immoral as one comment above does is at best misguided.

    Cotton & Jute bags are distributed as alternatives to plastic particularly since differing government taxes were introduced in Ireland, Scotland, Wales & England. The lack of a cohesive policy in this regard has delayed progress in the reduction of waste. Most Cotton bags used in the UK are sourced from the Indian subcontinent and produced using copious amounts of chemicals and insecticides. This coupled with air miles / transportation to the West means that they must be reused hundreds of times to negate the effect they have on CO2 as compared to HDPE. Many attractive looking Jute bags are poly, yes plastic lined and a high % of alternatives are produced from woven polypropylene. Everything that we use has an impact including my field which is paper. It has been a joy to support FSC and other organisations to ensure paper sustainability and contribute to the stewardship of forest areas across Europe and Scandinavia which provide a living space and livelihood to so many.

    Correctly packaged food can and does play a major role in food waste reduction by extending shelf life and enabling vital supplies to reach famine and disaster zones.

    Another thought provoking article by LICC and hope that the above will offer a few balanced thoughts.

    By John Proctor - 3rd December 2017
  15. I have just returned from a 1,151 nautical mile cruise around the Atlantic Ocean where I spent some time communing with God and praising Him for the beauty of His creation. Whist it is right to draw attention to the ‘plastic problem’, I do not believe it is right to say that we are ‘filling the seas with plastic’ or use other alarmist phrases. The Atlantic Ocean I saw was blue, pristine and unspoilt. It is also unimaginably vast!

    Whilst we must be aware of the impact that we human beings are having on our environment, it would also be a mistake, I believe, to over-emphasise and magnify the problem. There are still vast quantities of beautiful water in the oceans of our planet which are untouched, unreached and unpolluted by humankind .

    By George Irving - 4th December 2017
  16. Dear George
    Thank you for your comment above and for contributing to this really interesting set of exchanges. Sadly I am afraid that good science does not support your conclusion, however good and beautiful the views from on deck can be anywhere. I often find that visual impressions of beauty and environmental truth are often at confusing odds. Go no further than the UK’s denuded uplands for confirmation? Or further afield, the landscapes of most islands world-wide? All that green is often evidence of the introduced species that have displaced the rare and often now extinct unique species that were their own witness to God’s handiwork in biodiversity. In the ocean context, micro-plastics escape any superficial look but are alarmingly omnipresent as Bob Sluka makes clear above.
    With best wishes,
    Peter

    By Peter Harris - 10th December 2017
  17. PS I missed a link in case you are unconvinced http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-42264788

    By Peter Harris - 10th December 2017
  18. Dear Peter,

    I admit that my comment above was the subjective view of a holiday-maker on a cruise! But now, having looked at the link you recommend and some others, I want to put on my scientific hat and challenge some of what you describe as ‘good science’. For 7 years I worked in some of our largest coal-fired and nuclear power plants and part of my role was to monitor the environmental impact. I was often collecting and analysing water samples for very low levels of undesirable chemicals.

    To have any meaningful science which will back up your claim that ‘we are filling the oceans with plastic’, we need to know not only what the toxic chemicals are, but especially their concentration in parts per million (p.p.m.) in different areas of our seas and oceans. And with regard to micro-plastic we need to know how many particles are present per cubic metre of sea water around the globe. Are these figures available?

    Whilst there is undoubtedly a concentration effect when sea creatures ingest toxins and there may be higher levels of pollutants in gyres (ocean whirlpools), the overall dilution effect when pollutants are mixed with trillions of tonnes of sea water also has to be taken into account.

    It is also worth noting that the main pollution problem is not in our oceans but in the polluted rivers across the world which discharge and concentrate their effluent into estuaries and bays. That is where our clean up operation needs to be focused.

    It is very easy to show pictures of sea creatures trapped in our rubbish, to show beaches with so many pieces of plastic per 100 metres and to show the shocking contents of what a sea bird has swallowed, and I wouldn’t want to minimise the seriousness of this, but it may not constitute ‘good science’. Rather it may just be ‘popular’, ’emotive’ or even ‘alarmist’ science.

    By George Irving - 5th January 2018

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