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Touch the Earth Lightly.

By Euan Thomson in All Sorts

travels in Malaysia trigger reflections on waste and sustainability

It is a challenge writing for Connections.
I feel a bit like some of Wallis Chapman's guests on RNZ National's afternoon programme “The Panel”, being asked to comment on a topic about which they know very little. I'm certainly not an expert on Christianity or The Church. Guests on “The Panel” are asked to speak to a segment called “I've been thinking”.
Perhaps I'll start there.
In January I travelled to Malaysia with my partner to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family. Their home is a short distance from traditional rice paddy fields and it was a regular evening walk for me along a narrow road raised above the fields. I was fascinated by the amount of life that teemed in this tropical environment. Fish darted through the stream that fed water to the fields, shallow remnants of paddy water thrashed with shrimps, a Monitor lizard scuttled across my path and into a thicket of banana palms. The bird life was amazing with flocks of herons and egrets, the nests of weaver birds hanging in the trees and an unidentified bird reminding me of home with its constant cry of “te reo”. It was beautiful, but sadly, the scene was spoilt for me by the incredible amount of discarded plastic that lined the side of the road and floated in every waterway.
In Malaysia drinking water must be boiled, filtered or bottled as the water supply is not safe to drink. Consequently millions of plastic bottles are consumed every day. They are relatively cheap. A lot of the food is prepared in roadside stalls and served as take-aways, usually in plastic bags and trays. Fruit drinks are served in plastic bags tied around a plastic straw. Much of this is simply discarded along the roadsides. Plastic waste is everywhere.
Now I'm not pointing the finger at Malaysians. I am constantly picking up discarded plastic waste here in Mornington and I confess to using a great deal of plastic in my daily life. Almost everything is now sold to us in plastic. When I was young we shopped at the local butcher and brought home our meat wrapped in waxed and brown paper. Flour was sold in a cotton bag which, when empty, was then used to carry home the unwrapped bread. Beverages of all sorts were sold in bottles which had a monetary value when recycled. Butchers and grocers made a good living.
Why has this changed? It seems to me that it is so that just a few people can make a lot of money. It doesn't seem as if we, the customers, pay less for our food. Supermarkets have replaced the small businesses of the past and our produce is now packaged to suit their requirements, with almost everything being packaged in plastic and stamped with a barcode. Yes, we do have the Saturday morning market, but it doesn't suit everyone to go to town to shop there and the range of goods, though impressive, is still limited. It has to be produced locally.
Back to the issue of plastic waste in Malaysia. I couldn't help wondering why the water supply could not be chlorinated as it is here. I read recently that a company with the right to bottle 1.5 billion litres of Christchurch water per year was planning to spend $60 million to increase their capacity to as much as 9 billion litres per year. 9 billion plastic bottles being shipped to Asia each year from one bottling plant! Are we New Zealanders somehow complicit in this pollution of the world’s streams, rivers and oceans. And who benefits? I understand the artesian water is virtually free. Isn't this at least as questionable as looking for new sources of oil and gas in the great South basin? Wouldn't it be better investing that $60 million to provide safe reticulated water to some of the people who are currently forced to buy it?
The bible doesn't seem to say much about caring for the environment even though it claims it as God’s. Perhaps that's because it was written when Earth’s population was relatively tiny and before the invention of plastic and petrol. Maybe we it’s time to write a new chapter? Happily we have hymns such as Shirley Murray’s “Touch the Earth lightly” and, one we haven't sung for a while, “Sing Green”.
Vs 3
Sing Green to the plastic plague,
To the fumes of traffic’s wake,
Sing green, let our vote be noted,
Our voice be heard
For our dying planet’s sake
Sing green,
And don't let the rainbow fade, Sing green,
and cherish the world God made.

Euan Thomson.
(Who is not a member of any political party.)