Cleaning up Mobay — again

On Sunday, April 22, Earth Day asks us to take the environment personally. From its modest beginnings in 1970, the idea has grown and spread. This year, sponsors of “the world’s largest environmental service campaign” estimate that more than a billion people in 192 countries will observe Earth Day. Nothing else attracts that kind of audience except religious holidays, royal weddings and the World Cup final.

Earth Day’s most important purpose is education. This year’s main theme is “End plastic pollution”. The organizers want to make everyone – especially children and young people – aware of how their daily actions affect the world around them. They hope this knowledge will create a new generation of “green voters” – environmentally responsible people who will lead by example, organize to develop policies and technology that make their world cleaner, healthier and safer for all of us.

Earth Day events like fairs and exhibitions, art and essay contests and film screenings make people more aware of environmental challenges like climate change, pollution and deforestation. They also spread information about useful solutions like clean energy, organic food production, composting and recycling. This can lead to useful political action — when a billion voters turn out in support of a single idea, governments pay attention.

Earth Day observances usually involve useful work in the community. All over the world, people will turn out to plant trees and gardens, clean beaches and streambeds, and set up composting and recycling facilities.

The Earth Day Forest campaign, started in 2016, continues. Between now and 2020 (Earth Day’s 50th anniversary) the organizers want us to plant 7.8 billion trees – approximately one tree for each person on earth. Trees are a good defense against the worst effects of climate change. They trap greenhouse gases and purify the air. The hold the soil together and reduce the danger of flooding. They provide us with shade and food. Even 7.8 billion baby trees won’t replace the 90 million acres of mature forest that could be lost over the next few years, but it’s a good start.

It’s probably more useful than this year’s “end plastic pollution” campaign. When does plastic become pollution? The short answer appears to be “when it’s likely to do harm”. The Earth Day organizers argue that the chemical instability of most plastics make them a health risk, and that there is too much plastic waste in the world now – not enough is being re-used or recycled, and most of the rest is either clogging landfills or piling up on roadsides and shorelines as litter.

The campaign’s goals include ending single-use plastics, promoting alternatives to fossil fuel-based materials and promoting 100 percent recycling of plastics. The organizers hope to use Earth Day as the start of a grass-roots movement “to support the adoption of a global framework to regulate plastic pollution”.

Plastic is not the enemy. It starts becoming pollution in the hands of people who think it’s OK to buy something that’s used once and thrown away, and believe that when they drop it – in a bin or on the ground – it’s somebody else’s problem. Even worse are the firms that make this rubbish, knowing that there are enough weak, lazy, careless and thoughtless consumers to give them a profitable market for it. Then there are the governments – local and national – who attack the problem with litter laws and fines because it’s easier than developing (and funding) integrated recycling programs and proper landfill management. Plastic is only pollution if we make it so.

On Saturday, April 21 the Marine Park Trust will organize the cleaning of Old Hospital Beach — again. It seems no matter how often the trash gets picked up, there’s always a fresh supply. After-work fun includes glass-bottom boat rides, music and prize-giving for the song, poem and poster contests. It’s a big space, so lots of volunteers are needed. Montego Bay is not a green city and it won’t be one any time soon, but it can be a lot better, and it certainly doesn’t have to be a filthy mess.