The Dirty Side of Shiny

December 10, 2020

By Neil Midlane
Group Sustainability Manager at Wilderness Safaris

Last weekend the world “celebrated” Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the annual long-weekend consumer splurge that analysts estimate generated in excess of $270bn this year in online sales alone.

Although I’m sure some of that money was spent on necessary, useful and sustainably produced goods, it’s a fair bet that the vast majority was not. And therein lies the rub. Every celebrated Black Friday dollar spent on single use, or low quality, or “planned obsolescence” products is another dollar spent on destroying our planet’s biodiversity.

Here’s a small example. Have you noticed in recent years the proliferation of sequins on everything from Gucci socks to kids’ t-shirts? According to Vogue, “unlike buttons or rivets, sequins have no function other than embellishment.” So although the cute dinosaur with reversible shiny colours is an easy way to get a smile out of your toddler, ever wondered about the life cycle of each of the hundreds of pieces of plastic that make up that shiny T-Rex? 

Firstly, somewhere in the world, an exploration company drilled deep into the earth’s crust to search for oil. Right now, a Canadian company is planning to do just this in the “Kavango Basin” region of southern Africa. As the name suggests, “their” 2.5 million acre (!) exploration site is just around the corner from Botswana’s iconic wildlife refuge and World Heritage Site, the Okavango Delta.

The long term plan for oil extraction here would include fracking, an extremely water- and toxin-intensive process which has also been shown to cause earthquakes. Did you know that water flow in the Okavango region is heavily influenced by tectonic plate movements, and that the Kavango river and the Delta are situated in the middle of the Kalahari Desert? How is it possible that we can accept risking one of the world’s richest wildlife regions to make more short term profits from a dirty fossil fuel?

Once they strike oil, the exploration company sells out to an oil company that drills more and more wells to get the oil out as fast as possible. Despite all the usual platitudes, commitment to the environment, is meaningless to these giant companies when weighed up against their profit margins. 

After being sucked out of the ground in, for example, the Niger Delta, crude oil will make its way across the world by super tanker, with all the risks that entails, to be offloaded by pipeline (and more spillage risks) at a terminal in China. From there to a refinery and onwards to a plastics manufacturer. The raw plastic will then be further manipulated into a sheet of thin, shiny “sequin film”, before being pressed into millions of little plastic pieces. Finally the oil from the other side of the world is sewn onto a t-shirt. But not before as much as 33% of the sequin film is wasted in the cutting procedure. 

The t-shirt is then packed in more plastic, boxed into a container and shipped back to Africa to be sold in a bargain chain store at a mall in Cape Town. After some initial excitement from an unsuspecting child and a few months of wear the shirt will tear, be discarded and, best case scenario, the sequins will spend a few hundred years in a landfill site. Worst case, they’ll be blown away by the wind and left to pollute waterways and threaten marine life for hundreds of years to come. 

Quite the epic journey for that little sequin. Sadly, it’s one that most people will never even stop to think about. 

But hey, at least those Black Friday dollars keep rolling in.

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