Why we shouldn’t burn plastics

By Elizabeth Ah-Hi ,

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With not many options to recycle in Samoa, people are still resorting to burning yard rubbish including plastics, in an effort to get rid of waste.

This worries environmentalists who are trying to promote alternatives to burning waste, in particular plastics because of the harmful long-term effects it would have to our bodies and surrounding environment.

Dr. Frank K. Griffin is a Hazardous Waste Management Adviser at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (S.P.R.E.P.) who cautions that from a distance, burning plastic waste seems like a good idea until you see what is hiding underneath the smoke.

According to Dr. Griffin, there are Persistent Organic Pollutants (P.O.P.s) chemicals present in plastic waste that are harmful to our bodies and to the environment around us.

“There is P.O.P.s being produced every day. The reason they are called persistent is because the chemicals persist in the environment for a very long time. As a result of the persistence, they can accumulate in our bodies through what we eat and breathe.”

The persistent chemicals have shown to be toxic by nature and alter our hormones in ways that will be fatal to our bodies and cause birth defects in children.

“What we do without knowing what the consequences are, when we burn plastics it releases these chemicals and because they are airborne we breathe them in,” said Dr. Griffin.

“These chemicals love fat and they get stuck in the fat over time and are known to cause cancer. Some of them have properties that can disrupt your endocrine system that causes, especially women, to give birth to deformed babies. There’s a whole list of problems associated with these chemicals.”

There are eight P.O.P.s chemicals present in Samoa with the ninth suspected from the presence of its impurities. These include aldrin, chordane, dieldrin, D.D.T. and heptachlor as pesticides. Luckily Dr. Griffin says that Samoa is leading the progress in finding ways to manage these P.O.Ps

“The Samoan Government is doing a lot about this; in fact Samoa is one of the most progressive countries in the region in terms of taking the necessary steps of making this happen.

“There is a global convention called the Stockholm Convention and Samoa is party to that convention.

It is to allow countries to manage these groups of chemicals in a more environmentally friendly manner and we have to try and put in measures to counter the production and generation of these chemicals if they are produced.”

Environmentalists urge Samoans to return to traditional practices of making baskets and utilising natural resources to use as utensils rather than resorting to the more modern “stylish” conveniences of plastics bags, bottles, straws and styrofoam cups and containers.

Looking at ways to utilise organic waste to make healthy soil through compost is a perfect way to recycle and reuse. Generally Samoans are house proud, preferring to burn leaves and plant clippings than leave them lying around as an eyesore, but those are perfect opportunities to create compost heaps.

“We can weave baskets in five minutes and you have a ready-made bag. You don’t need to burn it; you just throw it into the compost heap,” said Dr. Griffin. 

“You are actually doing more good to the soil and the environment rather than using a stylish plastic bag or container which will take 500 years to break down.”

Almost half of the waste that currently fills up the landfill is food scraps and other biodegradable material that can be used for composting.

There are local support groups and trainings available – check out ‘Mafaufauga’  and ‘Waste Free Samoa’ on Facebook for more tips on how to recycle and reuse organic and plastic waste.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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