Top marks to that public spirited group of volunteers who last week cleaned a trailerful of plastic waste and dumped rubbish from the once-pristine Pollagh River close to Kiltimagh. The Pollagh, a renowned angling river, is a main tributary of the Moy. Were it not for the dedication of the volunteers who decided enough was enough, a ton of waste plastic would have floated down the Moy to find its way into the Atlantic, to add further to that ocean’s floating rubbish dump.
The modern world depends on plastic to sustain our current lifestyles. That wonder material is the source of medical devices, mobile phones, furniture and building materials, cars and household utensils. But plastic has its destructive downside. Discarded plastic bags and containers, bottles, cups, straws, wrapping and nets are polluting the planet and despoiling rivers and seas.
Millions of tons of single-use plastic items are washed into the oceans each year to join the estimated three hundred million tons already floating on the surfaces of the seas, carried on rotating ocean currents but going nowhere, since plastic will not disintegrate. The Pacific garbage dump, between California and Hawaii, undulates over a surface area exceeding a million square kilometres. In terms of land mass, that would be the equivalent of three times the size of France, a floating continent of debris, consisting in large part of discarded plastic material.
Many readers will remember Fr Shay Cullen, the Dublin priest on mission in the Philippines, who led the campaign to protect thousands of women and children who were subjected to sexual exploitation in that country. In spite of threats to his life, attempts at deportation, and being himself the victim of smear campaigns, Fr Cullen set up the Preda foundation to provide a safe haven for the exploited. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on four occasions and now, in his late seventies, has turned his energies to the problem of the waste pollution of Manila Bay, one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world.
Dubbed by Greenpeace as ‘an unflushed toilet’, Manila Bay and its beaches have for years been submerged under a cover of discarded single use plastic items. Mangrove swamps act as a barrier to the flotsam being carried further out to sea, but the results for Manila have been disastrous. Fish are found dead in their shoals, their insides clogged with plastic bags; a beached whale was found to have ninety pounds of plastic in its gut; dolphins and turtles become entangled and die in discarded fishing nets.
The fish being served at restaurant dinner tables are shown to contain minute micro plastics.
Now, in an initiative headed by Fr Cullen, the government and the military, six thousand volunteers have set too work twice a week on the huge task of clearing Manila Bay of plastic.
For the first time in decades, the mound of waste is being slowly peeled back and golden sand is beginning to emerge from beneath the detritus.
But, as with all man made catastrophes, the Manila experience may be too little, too late. Scientists agree that the damage done to the oceans will not be undone. To prevent further despoilation would require a worldwide ban on single use plastics like carrier bags, cups, bottles, drinking straws, cutlery and stir sticks and food containers. There are laws already in place in some countries to ban plastic bags. But that seems a long way removed from saving our oceans – and our own human health – from the destructive effects of plastic.