Plastic bottles piled high on otherwise pristine beaches; birds entombed in plastic bags; turtles and seals with stomachs full of plastic detritus. The damage caused by plastic waste is so well documented, and the images of destruction so common, that we have become almost immune to them. The numbers, too, barely elicit a reaction, even though an astounding one million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world, with the figure set to jump to half a trillion by 2021.
By 2050, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the ratio of plastic to fish in the ocean will be one to one – so one kilogram of plastic to every kilogram of fish. And that's the conservative estimate.
"At least eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean each year – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute. If no action is taken, this will increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050," says the MacArthur report of January 2016, titled "The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the Future of Plastics".
Efforts to recycle plastic waste have amplified in recent years, but it's a monumental task. Brands like Marks & Spencer and Coca-Cola are exploring ways to make their packaging less wasteful, while German company Brita has enlisted high-profile ambassadors such as model Lily Cole and fashion designer Henry Holland to support its #SwapForGood campaign, which encourages the public to ditch single-use plastic water bottles and adopt reusable ones instead.
Plastic straws are the current poster child for our wasteful inclinations. Used for only a few minutes, at most, and then discarded without a second thought, they are the embodiment of our mindless consumption of plastic goods. Which has led establishments around the globe to actively withhold plastic straws from customers.
This week, Lucky Voice Dubai joined their ranks. "Often you don't even need to request a straw in many bars and restaurants, but you'll end up with one, maybe even two, in your drink. We would like to raise awareness amongst our customers of the severe environmental impact that these straws have on the planet," says Brett Bell, assistant bar manager at the karaoke restaurant and bar.
"This small change will allow us to prevent in excess of 35,000 straws potentially harming the environment every month."
While such initiatives will play their part in minimising waste on a grass-roots level, a Canadian expat on the other side of the world has come up with a novel solution that aims to address our incessant consumption of plastics on a much larger scale.
Robert Bezeau knows a good catchphrase when he sees one, and within his arsenal he has: "Dinosaurs were extinguished by a meteor, humanity will be extinguished by plastic"; "If fish eat plastic, that means we do too"; and "Change the world without changing the Earth".
The industrious Canadian first visited Panama in 2007 – the central American state offered a welcome reprieve from the frigid temperatures of his homeland, he says. "I was looking for a country with no winter, since I had spent my life in Montreal, Canada. I first arrived in the capital, Panama City, but after 18 months I discovered Bocas del Toro, with its paradisiacal islands and crystal clear oceans."
Unfortunately, closer inspection revealed that there was one major blight on this otherwise idyllic landscape – the sheer volume of rubbish left by the constant stream of visitors coming to and from the island.
Bezeau initiated a study and, between August and December 2012, along with a team of 15 others, he gathered 60,000 bags of rubbish on Isla Colon, the main island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. When he took a closer look at the contents of those bags, he began to understand the scale of Isla Colon's plastic waste problem.
"After the study terminated, I could not let the problem continue, and decided to buy a truck with employees and start recuperating plastic bottles from hotels and restaurants. In just one year, at the end of 2013, I had a mountain big enough to start a ski resort," he explains.
It took another two years for Bezeau to work out what to do with that mountain of plastic. One day, out of the blue, it came to him – he would build a village out of plastic bottles.
"Because my background was in manufacturing, I created a small production shop, where I created a modular steel cage system, where the cages are filled with empty PET [polyethylene terephthalate] plastic bottles," he explains. "Each cage is 2.8 metres high by 0.6 metres wide and 18 centimetres thick, and contains between 120 and 300 plastic bottles, depending on the size of the bottles."
Once ready, the cages can be organised, like life-size Lego, into structures of varying sizes and shapes.
"With only eight different cage sizes, you can assemble all the walls of a complete home in the same day. Imagine if all those developing countries that have a need for inexpensive housing, and are struggling with plastic bottles, could gather the bottles and start producing cages filled with bottles, and have teams assemble rapid housing for the population.
"The cages are welded one to the other, so they offer great resistance to high wind and earthquakes," says Bezeau.
Purely by accident, he discovered that his new creations offer another useful benefit. "We discovered that the temperature was much cooler inside a plastic-bottle house, since the air in the bottles acts as an insulator, and the temperature difference from the outside of the wall and the inside of the wall is 17 degrees Celsius. The cages also have great floatability, since 120 to 300 bottles are trapped inside. In case of a tsunami, these cages would act as floating devices and could save many lives."
Each cage costs just US$20 (Dh73) to make. Bezeau says: "It's possible to build a 90- square-metre house, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining and living room, that will use about 90 cages with 10,000 bottles, for less than $2,000. That's for an anti-seismic, cool, comfortable structure that, most importantly, will help the planet."
Bezeau has also set his mind on creating an eco-residential community in the heart of Panama's jungle – for likeminded, eco-inclined individuals looking for an affordable, unique property on a tropical island. This is prime Isla Colon real estate. Covering 83 acres of jungle that stretches inland from the sea, extending across hilltops and valleys, and intercepted with freshwater streams, Bezeau's proposed community will consist of about 120 homes, as well as a boutique and eco-lodge, a yoga pavilion and mini-parks for barbecues and outdoor gatherings. Fruit, vegetables and herbs will be grown in a community garden.
The premise is this: "If you were born after 1978, and live until 80 years old, you will leave behind a minimum of 14,400 plastic bottles on this planet. If you live in a two-storey plastic bottle house of 100 square metres per floor, then your house will be built reusing 14,000 plastic bottles. These recycled bottles could neutralise the negative effect of your passage on this planet."
Bezeau has so far built one 90-square-metre house consisting of 10,000 bottles, one two-storey, 360-square-metre structure comprising 22,000 bottles, and his pièce de résistance, a 400-square-metre, 40,000-bottle castle.
However, his priority is not to sell his unique houses, but to turn the community into an international training centre where people from around the world can learn how to transform plastic waste into low-cost housing.
His hope is that teams from developing countries will visit, develop the necessary skills and go on to create plastic homes where they are needed most.
"I would also like to offer the possibility where qualified teams from here, could go to train people and start production in different parts of the world. I feel the need to tell everyone what I have discovered, and to get started on eliminating PET bottles, by using them to serve humanity instead of destroying it."
Bezeau has received requests for his team to visit Cameroon and South Africa to share their knowledge, and he is looking for sponsors to support these endeavours. The more he learns about waste, the more determined he is to do all he can to stop as much plastic as possible from ending up in our oceans.
"As I became more and more involved in using plastic bottles in construction, I began reading about the damage cause by plastic, and realised that humans are travelling full speed into a concrete wall. I was stunned to read articles about whales committing suicide [by beaching themselves], because their stomachs were full of plastic that they could not digest, and they were starving. I was much more inspired to build using these plastic bottles, just to prevent them from ending up in the ocean."
It's crazy – but maybe just crazy enough to work.