A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Gabriel Lamug-Nanawa (Gabby), a Jesuit priest in Cambodia, who has a proposal for churches in his local area to promote Plastic-Free Lent this year. Last year, Gabby went on a plastic fast for Lent and found the experience to be not only good for the planet but an important part of his spiritual practice as well. I asked him to describe his experience from last year and his proposal this year. Here is Gabby in his own words.
Cambodia has had a tragic past and has only quite recently begun to open up to the modern world. Our cities are urbanizing very rapidly. But as people reach out and embrace modernity, a lot of other things such as disposable plastic is seeping through and is turning Cambodia’s beautiful rustic landscape into a littered mess. Cambodia does not need these problems, and perhaps this coming Lenten season will be a good opportunity to pray and discern together how better still to serve this beautiful country.
Last year’s Lenten season was my first time to fast from plastic, avoiding purchasing or consuming anything that came in disposable plastic. Immediately, I was compelled to consider the packaging and material of the things I ate and used. Our lifestyle here in Cambodia is already quite simple, so this abstinence quickly began to revolve around food. The first to go were instant noodles, of which we eat a lot, then cookies, candies, and other snacks that come in throw-away wrappers. Bottled water, though recyclable, still takes energy to process and is something that could be avoided in the first place. It was best to keep things simple and use my own BPA-free bottle.
I was then forced to be creative and look for alternatives. This is a crucial stage where many could get discouraged, but I hope more and more people get to cross this threshold. I began to use my own containers for things that I bought, and looked for food that was more traditionally cooked and packaged. Although sometimes that meant choosing not to eat something tasty, or simply not to eat anything for a while, it made me healthier and later realize that I do not need to eat all that I want to eat. After all, I wasn’t being deprived of nutrition, but only of a tasty snack.
The plastic fast actually helped form my experience of Lent. It gave me a sense of the desert by doing away with many items in my daily life whose effects I had not previously discerned. It led me to a reconsideration of my eating habits, my purchasing actions and values, and an evaluation of my own lifestyle and how I affect others, the greater society, and creation.
Proposal to the Church of Battambang, Cambodia, for Plastic-Free Lent 2013
(Download a PDF copy of the proposal to use as a model for your own congregation.)
“The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone…” Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Peace, January 2010
For many years now, during the season of Lent, the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang has incorporated environmental themes into the prayers and practices of the faithful. For example, some weekly themes identify the garbage around us with the garbage of sins in our hearts. This year, as the Church invites us once again to prepare our hearts through acts of penance, prayer, and corporal works of mercy, perhaps it would also be a good idea to be more mindful of the garbage we generate through our everyday actions and actually reduce our trash output by fasting from plastic. Thus, for the coming 40 days of Lent, let us try to abstain from purchasing or using items that come packaged in disposable plastic, as our way of reducing our own harmful impact on creation.
Fasting from food and abstaining from meat, from other things that give us pleasure, or from our bad habits, bring much spiritual benefits if we offer our sacrifices to God. We enter into our own desert experience with Jesus.
If we try to abstain from disposable plastic during this Lent, we can also reach our own deserts. We will have to think about the things we buy and why we buy them, to examine our consumer values and clarify what is important to us. Usually, we throw away disposable plastics without much concern or thought. But as it leaves our sight, it does not really go away; it just becomes someone else’s problem.
Thus, our abstinence from disposable plastics helps other people and the rest of creation. As we reduce the amount of garbage in our homes and communities, we reduce its harmful effects on nature and act in solidarity with creation.
3. WHAT IS WRONG WITH DISPOSABLE PLASTICS?
The main concern about plastic is that it is not biodegradable. Plastics are normally made of materials extracted from crude oil, the same type of oil that is used to make fuel for cars and motorcycles. The most common type of plastic bag is made of polyethylene, a new substance made by humans that microorganisms do not recognize as food. Since no existing bacteria can break down plastic, it cannot biodegrade like other organic materials. What happens to plastics is that it photodegrades. When plastics are exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation for a long time, the polyethylene material becomes brittle and begins to crack, breaking into many tiny pieces. This process is estimated to take between 500 and 1000 years, but even when the plastics break into smaller fragments it remains non-biodegradable and toxic for the animals and humans that eat them.
Plastics clog waterways and can cause floods in cities. Eventually, they make their way to the sea. In fact, plastics are the most pervasive form of ocean litter. There they pose a serious danger to birds and marine animals that often mistake them for food. Thousands of animals die every year from swallowing or choking on plastic items.
So why do we continue to use disposable plastic bags to carry our things for only a few minutes, but which will then become a problem for creatures and the Earth for hundreds of years?? It does not make sense.
4. WHAT CAN WE DO FOR THIS LENTEN SEASON?
- As you buy things from a store, try not to accept the plastic bag that they will usually use to put the items that you bought. Instead, put the purchased item in your own bag.
- Refrain from purchasing or drinking water from disposable plastic bottles. Recycling consumes energy and just because they can be recycled does not mean that they are actually recycled. Use your own re-useable water bottle.
- Abstain from the use of plastic straws, polystyrene lunch boxes, and other food items that come in disposable wrappers, such as noodles and candies. These items cannot be recycled and are either thrown away or burned, both of which are not good to do.
- If you do have to buy plastic, make sure that it is recyclable, and that you dispose of it in a way that will assure that it will be recycled.
- Of course, exceptions are made for medicines and other important items that offer no alternatives.
- Take good care of the things you already have so that they last longer and are not easily destroyed and thrown away.
Gabriel Lamug-Naà±awa, SJ
What Else Can Houses of Worship Do to Reduce Plastic Pollution?
Coincidentally, just yesterday I also received an email from a man who has invented a dishwasher rack to hold reusable communion cups so churches can get away from disposable plastic cups. The device itself is plastic, but it could save lots of disposable plastic in the long run. I thought it was pretty cool.
Has your church or place of worship instituted any measures to reduce plastic? What are they? And what ideas could you suggest this year?