Indestructible

Indestructible

You must be all familiar with those pictures where cute little, or not so little animals are entangled in plastic. There is a reason why the media likes to feature these images. It ought to generate an emotional response in the audience. And it usually does!

For a brief moment the reader may feel a pang of horrible guilt and as a result maybe even a determination to make a change. Whether this determination lasts or not, is an entirely different subject and by far beyond the scope of this article. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that the it is a lasting sensation, the beginning of real action.

The painful realisation

So the reader will decide, that he or she will avoid plastic at all cost. It is time to change those plastic bags to tote bags, foldaway grocery bags and so on. They will then go to the shop and realise they have taken on an impossible challenge. The painful realisation hits hard, that the vast majority of the vegetables and fruits is suffocated in plastic. The cucumber they wanted to buy for dinner is tightly packed in single-use plastic, not recyclable of course. The apple they wanted to buy to pack with the kid’s lunch may even be individually wrapped.

Then they move on, and start to think, they haven’t got a chance whatsoever. The meat they will cook is plastic wrapped, the milk they use in their tea is in plastic containers. The toilet paper they will buy is in plastic wrapping. The rice and pasta they want to buy is in plastic package. It is everywhere!

The statistics

Globally, well over 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year! This 300 million tonnes of plastic can be recycled, go to landfill, incinerated or end up in our environment. The proportion of plastic that is being recycled varies by regions.

(Source: veolia.co.uk)

The numbers are not so great, at all. Let this be a moment of awakening. Humans created something indestructible, for a momentary pleasure. Essentially this is what it is. You may have a plastic bag that comes with your grocery for a few hours, days, sometimes even weeks. Then it will end up as waste, one way or another, but that is not the end of its lifecycle. It seems there is no end to its lifecycle, it doesn’t degrade. It will be around for a very, very long time.

I often say, that for a lot of environmental issues a bottom-up approach is what we need to take. It is the individual, who can make significant changes. I am convinced that consumers could make a difference in terms of plastic pollution as well. If there is no demand, there will be no need for plastic!

However, I also think that legislation should be put in place to phase out plastics, and ultimately divert the population from throw-away consumerism.

Kenya and its drastic plastic ban

Kenya has taken an incredibly radical approach. Did you know that for using, manufacturing, importing or selling a plastic bag in Kenya, you could be fined up to 40000 USD, or even go to jail? I bet you didn’t!

Professor Judy Wangalwa Wakhungu was the first woman to be appointed as Minister of Environment and Natural Resources. She is the woman who is responsible for banning single-use plastic bags from Kenya and therefore a true woman of impact!

Naturally you would expect resistance, and of course there was, mainly from businesses making a living from the manufacture of these plastic bags. Judy received threats, and took her years to negotiate with unions and other stakeholders/interested parties. When finally she had enough, she gave a 6 months notice and introduced the policy. 28th of August, 2017 the ban came into place and what a fantastic success this was! It was, in fact, such a success, that some other African nation may follow the example, such as South Sudan or Uganda.

People are creative. Especially when it comes to taking and finding short cuts of how to go around the law. What Judy realised, is that the only thing that deters them from doing so is extremely high, or you might say harsh penalties. It is my understanding, that the court frequently lets first offenders go with either a small fine or nothing at all.

Nonetheless, Kenya’s streets are cleaner today, and significantly less animals die with plastic in their digestive system.

Kenya recognises the true value of the environment

On that bombshell…

This is a two-way street. Whilst it is important that we, as individuals make conscious, and different choices, we also need cooperation from our leadership. I probably said this quite a few times in my previous posts, but we need to elect leaders that appreciate and honour the importance and the urge we need to act with.

We need legislation and policies to enforce and act as a deterrent, or it might take too long to implement changes before we make irreversible mistakes.

What COVID-19 taught us

What COVID-19 taught us

The world as we know it, dramatically changed. Within a short period of time, our daily routine was turned upside down, leaving people insecure and anxious about the future. Countries locked down, economies came to a halt, citizens been left without an income. COVID-19 has changed everyone’s life, but it also gave us an opportunity to learn our lesson as the population of planet Earth.

Governments released millions and millions in aid to encourage their citizens to stay at home. They released packages to protect businesses, whether they are small or large. They supported their healthcare so that they can cope with the outbreak. In a way, they acted so quickly, to stop the virus and protect their people. On the other hand, however, they did it out of fear. They were just as scared as any other citizen. This is a situation none of us experienced before. Not in the modern world. The world only just came to a realisation that we are, as human beings, vulnerable. Vulnerable to a situation when we don’t necessarily have control over the outcome, let alone the origin of it.

COVID-19 was, in a sense, unexpected. We didn’t know it will happen and even when we did, we had no idea it will affect so many. Nonetheless, governments acted rapidly and although it is far from being over we already learnt so much! The very first lesson that I learnt is that they can if they want! They can, if they are scared enough. Reacting so quickly to something that you didn’t expect shows me power and will. It also shows dedication for the cause, to save your people’s life.

The big question

So my question is, why weren’t decades enough to mitigate climate change? Why are governments still tossing this issue around like it is not important? We certainly cannot say, that they don’t know about it and it is unexpected. They know, that the damage we do to our environment will become irreversible (if it is not already). They know that ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise, islands and coastal cities will flood, species will go extinct because they cannot cope with their changing habitat.

Will their son know what does a Bornean Orangutan look like? That it even existed? Will their daughter know that there were breathtaking corals reefs in the ocean and how crucial it was to conserve that habitat? Will they remember what was life like when everything that you own wasn’t in grave danger from storms, floods, fire?

Nature doesn’t need people. We need nature. Everything you need to live comes from nature. It is a gift. I think we ought to appreciate it and do everything we can to avoid a future that awaits us. Because it will come if we don’t act. COVID-19 taught us that we can cooperate, we can act and stay strong if necessary. It taught us that governments can stand up if needed. We need leaders who tell the population that there is another, much bigger catastrophe on its way.

The lesson

What happens to the world now is tragic. But I also see the other side of the coin. We now know that you don’t always have to jump in the car to attend a meeting – in fact, online meetings work just fine! We now know how lucky we are to enjoy nature even for a short period of time when we take our daily exercise. After a long time, we have the time to finish that puzzle, play that board game and cook our dinner together, as a family. We now have the time to stop for two minutes and enjoy the Sun shining on our face, taste our coffee like we’ve never tasted it before.

The most important lesson we should take away from COVID-19 is that we never know when will life, as we know it end. We are responsible to protect it, not just for us, but for all the generations after us.

Cradle to grave – The life cycle perspective

Cradle to grave – The life cycle perspective

Everything that you own, buy, keep or throw away has got environmental impacts. It is hard to look at products in such a conscious way, but once you get your head around it, it will change the way you manage waste. Have you ever wondered what happened with a single pen you bought? Or where did your milk come from? Or where did your computer’s “life” started? Probably not! But it’s okay, as the modern world wants us to know that if you need something, you can just go to the shop and buy it. They don’t want you to think about where did your product came from, or what impact it had on the environment. Why not? Because it would encourage you to think twice before you buy or throw away something. It is simply not in their best interest for you to make conscious decisions about your purchase.

Life cycle perspective considers and determines aspects of activities, products and services that one way or another impacts the environment. It is a cradle to grave view, that looks at a subject from the moment it is ‘born’ until it is disposed of. Often organisations and businesses implement a Life Cycle Perspective in their environmental management systems. This approach enables them to identify areas where they can minimise their impact on the environment, whilst adding value to their organisation (economic, ethical and compliance benefits).

What does this mean in practice? To identify environmental impacts, you also need to identify environmental aspects. But what is the difference? Let’s take a bottle of milk as an example. To have milk, we need to keep cattle. You need to feed the cows, you need water, land and veterinary care (treatments, medicine, etc.) This is the input, an aspect of just one stage in producing a bottle of milk. The impact is loss of land, soil erosion, contributing to climate change due to methane emissions, potential water scarcity. And we don’t even have the milk yet! Using the same method, let’s follow a potato from cradle to grave.

Spectacular spuds

Let’s call our project Spectacular Spuds. We will now have a quick look at what impact the potato you bought in the shop has on the environment.

First of all, you need to grow potatoes and for this, you need to treat anc cultivate the land. For this, you need to use water, soil, fertilisers, pesticides and manpower. The potential or actual impact of these activities will be water deficiency, soil erosion, chemical pollution (surface run-off, or groundwater pollution).

Once your potatoes are ready, you will need to harvest them. For this, you will need to use manpower, machinery, fuel in the machinery. Your impact will be air pollution and CO2 emissions.

The spuds need to be cleaned, as nobody likes to buy dirty potatoes. You will use water, machinery, manpower and energy for this, therefore you created air and noise pollution, and again CO2 emissions from energy usage.

Then the potatoes are graded, using manpower and machinery. This will create waste potatoes and thus green waste (that will be either composted or it goes to landfill), CO2 emissions and potential noise pollution due to the use of machinery.

After this, the potatoes are bagged and stored. You will use plastic packaging, energy to control the temperature to ensure your potatoes won’t be rotten by the time they reach the shop, machinery and manpower. Most likely you will have waste plastic packaging, increasing plastic pollution, you emit CO2 while using machinery and refrigerating the product, and you will also create a loss of visual amenity (due to the use of land).

You need to transport the spuds to the shop, so you will use (fuel-powered) vehicles, possibly refrigerated ones. You will, therefore, pollute the air, and emit CO2.

Your spuds are displayed in the shop, using energy, light, temperature control. And only after all this, the spud is sold!

Wow!

This was a fairly simplified overview of what impact you can have on the environment by just buying a bag of potatoes! I am sure you are aware that whatever you buy, will have an impact! So how can we reduce our impact? We need to eat, we need clothes to wear, and sometimes you can’t help it, you need to buy products!

We can look at reducing our waste! Don’t throw away food if you don’t have to! Respect all the energy and work that has gone into a bag of potatoes (or bottle of milk, a box of eggs). We need to be more thoughtful about our food, and most importantly be grateful that we have it.

Don’t buy a new one, as long as the old one works. It is easy to get into the habit of buying a new phone every year, or buying a bigger, and nicer television. However, as long as the current one works perfectly fine, is it really necessary?

Choose local! There is a lot of emission and pollution you can cut out if you choose local. You won’t just support the farmer, but you will have significantly less impact buy buying a product that did not need to be transported.

Be mindful! Choose and live consciously, and be more thoughtful about your shopping habits. Overconsumption puts a lot of pressure on our environment, as we use much more resource than what we could sustainably manage.

Rohini’s story

Rohini’s story

Bombay to Townsville; A journey in architecture

If I went back in time and told my 10-year-old self that in the future I’d be living in another country independently, ziplining and kayaking, diving in the great barrier reef, working in multi-cultural environment, publishing my own research paper in an international architecture journal and finding my own family in a country where I didn’t know anyone; 10-year-old me would think it was something from an adventure book. 10-year-old me had 2 new clothes every year, second hand textbooks, hardworking parents who looked after her and travelling between 2 major cities in India on holidays. Travelling abroad was an insane concept because we had no family. During my bachelor’s degree in India my best friend left for the States for her PhD. It had a huge impact on me.

Being a nerd deep down all my life, my passion for architecture led me to see the world very differently and after graduation I wanted to be in a space where I could feel a part of the larger world. So, after much deliberation, I moved to Australia for a new life. It took some time to adjust, but I eventually got the hang of life in a different country. It was a huge cultural and perspective shift. I think the idea we have of a place, person or experience is the most important because thinking about doing something is the first place to start. Then eventually, doing it makes it much more enjoyable. Of course, it was not all smooth sailing, there were times where I felt like I had to give up. But, I’m glad I didn’t. All my life, I longed for freedom, for independence and today I feel I have got everything I wished for. I have made friends in the strangest of circumstances and diverse backgrounds.

All this has led me to shed my inhibitions, let go of my prejudices and allowed me to be grateful for all that I have. Fear, Hatred and Pride don’t make good company to live anyway. I believe my life is what you make of any situation and my love for architecture has made this my life. I am a 5 foot 2 woman living in a world which still lacks representation from people like me. Most of the times, I’m always the only coloured person in the room or the only woman. But, you know what? Someone needs to make the change. I’m glad I’m part of it. All the moving from a huge city then to a smaller one and then living in a town which is a 30 minute radius of everything makes me feel a sense of belonging. It has become a part of me and it makes me feel a sense of happiness.

Rohini Chatterjee

The African elephant

The African elephant

It is very hard to know how many African elephants are left in the world, mostly due to their habitat. Often they occupy large woodlands and forests, but they also inhabit savannas and grasslands. There are only estimates as to how big is the threat they are facing in reality. Their situation appears to be getting better (in 1996 they were endangered), and their numbers are increasing today. However, they are still far from being safe. In some regions of Africa, such as Burundi or Gambia they are now extinct, and in some regions, conservationists are reintroducing the species (like Swaziland).

Although somewhere their numbers are declining, in other regions their numbers are increasing. A vast amount of effort, manpower and money is essential to assess their situation. An estimation from 2014 was a total population of 700,000, and the latest released report is from IUCN stating 415,000 individual. It might not seem that bad, what makes it dramatic is their total population not much more than 40 years ago, in 1976. 1.3 million African elephants were roaming over 7 million square km lands.

The largest land animal

Elephants are the largest animals on land. They are highly intelligent, and possess the ability to feel emotions, and live social lives. Their importance is undeniable. Many other species rely on their migration. As elephants migrate through vegetation and feed on plants they also create gaps in the forests. These paths are later used by other, mainly smaller animals to find water. Whilst creating paths they also overturn the soil allowing plant species to thrive.

Their valuable tusk allowing them in dry seasons to dig for water. This is vital for them, but also for the entire ecosystem around them. In many species, there are some features owned by either the male or the female. However, an elephant’s tusk is not one of these. Both males and females have these. An interesting fact about the tusk itself, that in reality, it is just a modified incisor tooth, that grows for life.

Elephants (just like gorillas) have a very ineffective digestive system, and barely absorbing half of what they eat. This also means that often their dung contains valuable seeds that will blossom once again. This is incredibly important, as they can grow to be up to 6 tonnes. To feed such a large body, but have a digestive system like theirs means that they have to eat more or less all day.

African elephants also have very large ears. This allows them to control their body temperature by emitting heat. It is also a feature that helps us differentiate the African and Asian elephants (apart from their very different head shape). As the temperature is milder where the Asian elephants live, they do not need such massive ears.

Emotional contagion

Due to the species emotional abilities, African elephants form very strong bonds within their families. The oldest and largest female leads the herd and ensures their safety at all times. They live in a beautiful matriarchal society. Living in tight groups offers them more security. Individuals can live up to 70 years, and their calves are born after a gestation period of 22 months. Some calf can be 100-120 kg when they come into this world. Wow!

Elephants have amazing long-term memories, and there are studies saying that a matriarch can remember a drought that happened decades ago. They also appear to feel a sort of empathy for injured, or ill elephants. They even mourn their dead. Their consciousness about their bonds and their feelings are absolutely amazing.

They are also one of those animals that can recognise themselves in a mirror. Other animals capable of doing this are humans, apes and dolphins.

Main threats to elephants

Naturally, the biggest danger this majestic animal has to face is humanity. As we are overpopulating the planet we need an ever-increasing area to live on, destroying forests, grasslands any many more to build in the place of them. Elephants are losing their habitat, or suffer from the fragmentation of it. Due to the growing demand more land is converted to agriculture and this is causing conflicts between humans and elephants. They often raid areas and crops, and this is dangerous for both humans and them. The fight for resources is real, and it costs lives.

Another massive danger is the ivory trade. An estimated 100 elephants are hunted down and killed a day (!) for their tusk or meat. The price of ivory seemed to increase uncontrollably for a very long time, and Asia is the biggest trader for them. As long as there is a demand this will never stop, however, the species is dangerously running out of time, and space. Fortunately, the prices of ivory suddenly dropped in 2018 after a ban in China, and this certainly had an impact. The number of elephants killed for their tusk is decreasing now due to the decreasing demand.

Yet again, it is greed and the neverending lust for money, unnecessary items that will push a species towards extinction. Today we have to face the reality that overpopulation affects not just us but everything else around us. Eventually, even humanity will have to fight for their lives and resources if we don’t change the way how we live right now.

More in the Endangered species series:

More in Shaping the future – organisations that make a difference: