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The Zero-Waste Challenge: Conclusions and What I’ve Learnt

Illustration by Emer Sukonik

As the term comes to an end, so does my challenge and this column. Although parts of the challenge have been fun, I must admit, I’m glad it’s over and am looking forward to how much easier my day-to-day life will be. I’ve been ill for the past few days and it has been much simpler to cope with the help of paracetamol, Lemsip, and tissues all of which come packaged in plastic – although that doesn’t sound as hardcore as just suffering through it. I don’t plan to return to the way I was living before the challenge and will be taking on board a lot of the things I’ve learnt. You will still catch me carrying a loaf of bread in hand if I’ve forgotten my tote bag, both because it’s a habit and because I get to feel very cottage-core. 

So, the all-important question, how much plastic did I produce over the term?

I kept my plastic neatly tucked in the corner of my room and watched as it slowly grew. I must admit, I’ve produced more than I was hoping to but it did feel good to see my empty bin every morning next to everyone else’s full ones. Below, you can see my seven-week update followed by the two photos I hurriedly took before going home. 

You may recognise the Best Kebab van fork from 0th week in the picture; a relic of a moment of weakness but not the only one. There are also Celebrations wrappers from a 2am essay crisis and the plastic sleeve of a white baguette I shamefully got from Tesco on a rough day – not very cottage-core of me. If I hadn’t dropped my phone in the Plush toilet, I wouldn’t have had to buy a new one and add its packaging to my collection. Unfortunately, I’m very clumsy and the week-long rice treatment I gave it didn’t rejuvenate it as I hoped it would. Turns out manifestation doesn’t always work. 

Some of the waste I produced was unavoidable. For example, my passport and prescriptions were delivered in plastic envelopes and bus tickets and receipts are often non-compostable and handed to you before you can say no. I was bound to produce waste – I knew that. What I didn’t realise was how difficult it was going to be and how little is available to buy without plastic. I went from excitement and hope for this challenge to frustration at the extent to which packaging and waste is pervasive in our lives and ultimately to anger and then to defeat. Add in acceptance and I may have gone through all the stages of grief for our planet. 

Back home in Muscat, I have felt the impact of climate change on where I live. The sea which we used to swim in to cool off has become so warm in the summers that it feels like a hot tub. This might sound like a pleasant change, but it makes you feel like you’re suffocating rather than the spa treatment you might imagine it is. Having to time your swim so that it doesn’t feel like you’re floating in warm soup isn’t really something I can complain about but watching as the coral bleaches and feeling totally powerless is painful. The sharks which take refuge in cool waters will stop appearing and fish populations will start to fry whilst oysters and mussels will struggle to grow their shells. Soon this ocean soup won’t be a metaphor but a reality and I don’t think it will be as tasty as my every-leftover-vegetable soup.

These aren’t the only impacts of ocean warming and acidification. The absorption of carbon by the ocean can initiate a feedback loop in which under oxygenated waters breed a plethora of microbes which turn the water more anoxic starting in deep ocean “dead zones” which gradually move towards the surface. There, small fish suffocate as they are unable to breathe hence allowing oxygen-eating bacteria to thrive and reinforcing the feedback loop. These dead zones will spread, suffocating marine species, and wiping out fisheries until hydrogen sulphide will start to bubble out of the inert waters to poison everything on the land.

Why can’t we see that climate change is such a big issue? Climate change doesn’t have a singular villain to battle against and there won’t be an all mighty hero to step in. It’s everywhere. There isn’t a single catastrophic event like 9/11 which imprints itself in the minds of everyone present. Climate change is slow. Dangerously slow. We assume that it will hit hardest elsewhere, not where we are. It is an abstract issue. One that makes us uncomfortable. In a world six degrees warmer, our ecosystem will swell with an overabundance of natural disasters which we will come to regard as “weather”. We will invent new categories for hurricanes as the planet will be regularly assaulted by tornadoes, floods, droughts, and typhoons. Many scientists believe it’s too late to rely solely on the reduction of emissions to prevent this. Carbon capture, an untested technology we hope will help us extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is what a lot of scientists are clinging on to. Considering it is also regarded as a far-fetched nightmare from science fiction, it doesn’t entirely bode well. One approach – the aerosol approach – involves pumping so much sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere so that it converts to sulfuric acid and clouds a fifth of the horizon to reflect 2% of the rays from the sun. The little wiggle room it would give us doesn’t come without a price. It would bleach the sky, increase acid rain, and turn our sunsets very red. When looking at the scale of the problem, that price will start to look very small. We are entering unknown territories and our world will start to look very different. It’s time for us to panic.