Hippos don’t make a great alarm clock. As we unzipped our tent, we were met with the cold breeze of a winter morning in Botswana. It was time for an early-morning safari walk. Crawling out of our tent before sunrise, we could see the deep orange of the sun begin to illuminate the horizon. The fog clung to the river and the reeds were lost in its haze. We grabbed our hiking shoes, coats, cameras, and hats and piled into the mokoro, a traditional African dugout canoe. Gliding down the delta paths, we wove in and out of the tall reeds and beached our mokoro on a small sand pullout. The vibrant orange sun now rose above the horizon, showering the plains with a golden orange and silhouetting the baobab trees. Thus began our walking safari.
From sunrise to midday, we would tromp through grasses and reeds and over termite mounds and sand piles. Botswana’s Okavango Delta lies in the northwest part of the country and is made up of a network of rivers connecting the swampy islands. Poling through the waters for hours, our guides led us to a campsite that lay far from any nearby villages. And yet, after walking for three hours inland, we still managed to find evidence of human life in the form of, you guessed it, plastic.
Although untouched remains a myth and pristine has ceased to exist, the remote stunning nature of the African wilderness is what draws people near and far. The ubiquity of plastic is not something new. Plastic has been around since the 1950s. Tons and tons are produced each year – 8.3 billion metric tons have been estimated to be produced to date (Geyer, 2017). For context, if we were to spread out this plastic, it would cover the entire state of California. It would take 1 billion elephants to equal this amount of plastic. It would take 80 million blue whales to be equivalent. It would take 25,000 empire state buildings to be comparable in weight (Beckley, 2017). That is approximately 9.14909×1014 plastic water bottles, enough to wrap around the earth 4,457,907 times. We like our plastic.
I wish it ended there. We continued on from Botswana. Piling into crowded buses, we sat with the locals loudly singing to their portable radios and breaking out their coolers. Why did we not think of that? As each drink was finished, it was thrown out the window, falling to the side of the road and left behind. From bus to bus to a wild hitchhiking ride, we made it to Namibia. I thought perhaps the evidence of human plastic consumption would be minimized in a country with a population of only 2 million spread out over 318,772 square miles. Namibia, in fact, is one of the few countries in the world that has written conservation into its constitution – “The State shall actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people by adopting international policies aimed at the following: maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes, and biological diversity of Namibia, and utilization of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future.” (Chapter 11, Article 95) Yet one morning, as we climbed out of our rooftop tent before the sunrise illuminated the national park, we were met with more evidence that plastic is inescapable. You know you are in luck when you see hoards of safari jeeps and 4x4s pulled over on the side of the road and cameras going wild.
To our left lay a pack of lions on an early morning walk to a nearby watering hole. But even here, within Etosha National Park in rural northern Namibia, we found it – plastic. One of the female lions tussled and played with a bright red plastic bag, oblivious to the danger it posed. The lions only further illustrated the global scale of plastic pollution and how no part of the natural environment remains untouched. Trash had become a toy.
The ubiquity of plastic in wildlife areas only continued as we traveled. Plastic bags served as entertainment for birds and baboons alike. While driving along the Western Cape, we pulled over only to spot a baby baboon chewing and dragging a large trash bag with every step.
And we aren’t as ecologically-responsible as we think. In fact, as of 2017, the world only recycled about 9 percent of its plastic production (Geyer, 2017). The arduous process of sorting recyclables is made only more difficult by the many falsities we encounter in day-to-day life. Take recycling bins. Have you ever looked where the plastic cup you toss in the green bin goes? Waste often is disguised by a lid that ends up on a direct path to the landfill anyway.
However, plastic free of paper and food is easily returned to pellet form and made into bottles or containers once again. But the reality is, most plastic is not pure. And NIMBY (not in my back yard) will not work anymore. Up until 2018, more than 50% of the world’s plastic waste was being shipped out of our own back yards and straight to China, where impure plastic was carefully and laboriously hand sorted. However, with China’s recent ban on the import of 24 kinds of solid plastic waste, other countries are left with both too much plastic to process and a lack of facilities to do so (Freytas-tamura, 2018). So where does it end up? Landfills. Lion’s mouths. The swamps of the delta.
But this is not to say there is not a change in the tides (which also have plastic in them). Corporations are beginning to recognize unnecessary plastic products and make company-wide shifts towards more sustainable alternatives. Starbucks, American Airlines, Hyatt and countless others have all pledged to phase out plastic straw and stirrer usage by 2020. Proposition 67 in California has banned plastic bags entirely. The United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, France, Belgium and many more countries have imposed a tax on plastic bags (NCSL, 2018). We are making progress. We are making strides. The power of innovation and the will of the determined have resulted in policy change, revolutionary technology and increased awareness. People are beginning to listen. The hippos were our alarm clock and now the world is hearing its wake up call.
Photos by Micaela Unda and Dave Gay