It was a beautiful autumn day in Bucharest. The bell announcing the end of the school day rang about 30 minutes ago. Nikos was going home walking while listening to his favorite music and making plans for the afternoon.

He was thirsty, so he pulled his plastic water bottle from the pocket of his backpack.  He likes only one type of mineral water, so he has to have one or two plastic bottles every day, although he could use a refillable one. This time, the cap of this water bottle wouldn’t open. Nikos gathered all his strength and he managed to open it, but he dropped the cap which rolled over.

It’s ok, I don’t need it anyway because I am very thirsty and I am going to drink all this water. Then I will throw the bottle away, thought Nikos, and continued on his way home while listening to his music.

The cap rolled over until it got stepped on by a man who was also passing by the same sidewalk. The man felt the bump under his shoe and picked it up. 

Oh, it is just a plastic cap. I’ll put it in the next garbage I see on the roadside, the man considered. 

He did so and the plastic cap ended up in a garbage can. Inside it was dark, hot and it smelt really bad. The cap was afraid and began to tremble.

Suddenly, he heard a voice: “Who’s there?” 

“I am a plastic cap; the place where I came from they call me Mr. D. Every plastic bottle and every cap has a D because it is the name of that factory where the water is bottled,” explained the cap.

“I am an aluminum can. You can call me Ms.A.C. Nice to meet you.”

“Well, it is a way of saying that we “meet.” It is so dark in here, I can’t see a thing” replied the cap. 

“Don’t be afraid, we are many here. If you allow me, I will ask everyone to introduce themselves, continued Ms. A.C. “Come on guys, help me on his.”

“Hi, I am Ms. B”, said a Banana peel.

“Hey, I am Mr. A,” spoke a piece of rotten apple.

“Hello, I am Ms. G,” continued a piece of glass.

“Hi there, I am Mr. P.B. …. “ But he couldn’t finish his sentence because all of the rest started to express their disgust. 

“Yuck!”

“Gross!”

“Please, stop it!” snapped Mr. P.B. “ You know that it’s not my fault that I am stinky.” 

“I don’t understand,” replied Mr. D. “You all smell bad.“

“Not as bad as him,” insisted Mr. A. Then he continued: “Can you believe that we are sharing the same garbage can with a dog poop bag?” 

“But why?” asked Mr. D. 

“Good question,” said Ms. B. “ Let me clarify it for you: because some people do not care about the environment. They choose not to separate the types of waste, and that’s how we all end up here, instead of being collected in different, beautifully colored dumpsters.” 

 From a corner, a voice that wasn’t heard before spoke up: “Indeed, due to this lack of responsibility, some of us lose our chance to be recycled… And the worst is that we all will be soon..”LEACHATE”. 

“Who’s speaking?” asked Mr. D.

“They call me Mr. P. I am a crumpled paper. I am so sad because I could serve more people if I were recycled. I could have saved a tree from being cut…”

“I am sorry for you,” replied Mr. D. “I am a plastic cap, I can only be recycled twice before I lose my properties. But you mentioned a word I don’t know,’ LEACHATE’. What’s that? Is that even how you pronounce it?”

“It’s pronounced liːtʃeɪt,” continued Mr. P. “If you want to remember this word, think of “teach” and the number eight. Pronounce them together and then you replace the T with an L.  You know: say Teach-8, then say Leachate”, Mr. P summarized his mini spelling lesson. Then he went on: “Now, allow me to tell you about our next stop. It is a dead-end for us. People call it “landfill.” There, the garbage—that’s us— is not recycled, but mixed with water, and we become this poisonous substance called “leachate.”

“Shhhh! Ms. A.C. interrupted him. “I can hear the garbage truck coming! Farewell, my friends!”

The garbage truck arrived at the gate of a landfill next to Bucharest. It is not an ecological one and there are many problems regarding the disposal of the waste.  

In this one, the garbage doesn’t break down well and, every time it rains, the water filters through the waste and forms the leachate. 

Mr. D rolled down a pile of disgusting waste, feeling horrified and thinking of the amount of time he would spend there. He tried to remain calm and to observe the things around him. 

Then, he realized there was a lot of noise, like in a hive. Millions of things that people had been disposed of, ended up here: organic waste, old clothes, shoes, microwaves, pieces of old furniture. The list was endless.

What he was seeing around was not at all like what he knew from the stories he heard back at the factory. 

While he was still with his fellow caps and plastic bottles, he learned that people would take care of them, collect and recycle them to give them a second life. He also learned that for the people, plastic is a vital material as it is used to make medical devices that save lives. Another reason for which the people would recycle them is that they know plastic needs 400 years to break down totally and this represents a threat to the environment and people’s health. 

“When I left that factory, I imagined my life differently. Why am I here? Why is this place so awful?” Mr. D whispered, to give himself more courage.

A voice with a foreign accent, from somewhere below the pile he was on, spoke to him: “I heard your questions. I am a piece of an old cotton made T-shirt and I love to talk. I am very social. On my label says ‘Made in Greece.’ This makes me think that I am Greek. You know, folks around here also say that I am inquirer and knowledgeable,” the voice said proudly. 

“Hi! I am Mr. D. I am just a blue plastic cap,“ he replied.

I think I can clarify or explain some things to you,” the voice added. 

“Please do!“ exclaimed Mr. D, full of hope.

Then the voice continued: “Well, I have been here for several weeks and I almost reached the bottom of this landfill. Everyone here fears this moment. Do you know why? Because this landfill doesn’t follow the environmental laws. Many countries have difficulties in dealing with the garbage collection systems. In my case, if I reach the ground, it is not a problem. I will break down easily because I am made of organic cotton; I am part of nature. But you, my dear, you are going to go through a lot. If it is going to rain, there are more chances that you find yourself floating into leachate.” 

“Again this word: leachate,” interrupted Mr. D. “I have been warned before. What exactly is happening here when it rains?” the plastic cap inquired.

Then, the voice became serious and explained: “In combination with water, all this garbage that doesn’t break down well is dissolved and this liquid is called leachate. It’s like you would put acrylic paint and vinegar and soap in your water bottle. Who would drink that? NO ONE! That is POISONOUS. The same is with the leachate.” 

He continued to explain: “The thing here is that you are made of plastic. Plastic doesn’t break easily. Parts of you will be dissolved into the leachate. Then, all this toxic liquid goes down into the ground. Some of it also evaporates and small particles go with the wind whatever direction it blows. Basically, my friend, you will soon be everywhere. Of course, not as a cap, but as a million tiny particles. People call these tiny pieces ‘microparticles.’ As I said, I am Greek, therefore I understand why the extremely small particles are called ‘micro.’ In Greek, ‘mikrós’ also stands for a fraction of one-millionth. Can you picture that? I know my former owner, Nikos, would know it because he was in 5th grade and he was learning about fractions…”

In that second, Mr. D screamed: “Did you say, Nikos?! As in Nikos a fifth-grader? Am I dreaming? This is the boy who dropped me and didn’t think of putting me into a recycling bin!”

“What can we do now? As I said, I am Greek, I like philosophy and I believe in faith. We were destined to be here and to….“ but he couldn’t finish his sentence.

Mr. D was really angry. He couldn’t help to ask, almost crying: “Why these young people do not think of recycling? If Nikos, that 5th grader had done it, you, Mr. Old Cotton T-shirt and I wouldn’t face this horrible destiny called leachate…..”

It was getting dark, so he thought it would be better to rest. 

Several weeks have passed. It’s rained almost every day which made the quantity of leachate increase. Soon, Mr. D found himself drowning in that poisonous liquid which made him break down in many many tiny pieces of plastic. He thought: That Old Greek T-Shirt was right: I am disintegrating into millions of microparticles.  

A storm was about to start. The wind was blowing. Mr. D felt that some of his particles were carried away by the wind. Probably they will mix with the dust…

Mr. D was sad. He was worried, thinking of the possible destination of those microparticles. He realized that some would end up in the lungs of some people and that will make them sick. Others wouldl be taken down by the raindrops and would pollute the crops or the rivers.

As he was reflecting on the future of some of his microparticles, he felt sudden movement from the huge pile of waste he was trapped inside. Pieces of Mr. D were sliding down, carried by a torrent of filthy water.

Soon, they reached the bottom of the landfill. But those pieces didn’t stop there. The pressure from above was very big. Some of his microparticles were able to infiltrate into the ground. All those particles passing the ground barrier were screaming: “Heeelp!!! This is so TOXIC !!!” But no one could do anything to help them. They were sinking into the LEACHATE.

Some of the finest of Mr. D’s microparticles continued their way deeper into the ground. Suddenly, they reached a place that was cool and refreshing. One of them, with a sense of humor, said: “Guys, I can’t see you, but I feel you are here. Don’t you like this place? We’ve been through hell, so this must be the  heaven of the waste! “ 

Another particle replied: “Heaven or not, we need to get going. I am a microparticle of a plastic cup. This is my second time here… long story…. I will explain it to you later. For now, I will give you the short version.  We are in the underground water. If we let ourselves flow to the left, we will reach a small river next to this city. That river will take us to the sea. Then, if we are lucky, we can travel around the world. I will be your guide.”

“Yeahhhh, let’s follow the leader!” exclaimed some of the microparticles. 

“Wait a second!” commanded Mr. D’s microparticle. “How come you are here with us if you say you have traveled the seven seas?” he inquired. 

“I told you: it’s a long story. But to see that I am telling the truth, Iearn that I had the bad luck to be eaten by a fish when I was in a river in Australia, just at the beginning of this summer. It was so beautiful there! I can’t wait to show you the way. Guys, we are going to Australia! I am so excited!” 

“If you were eaten by a fish in Australia, how come that you are here with us?”probed Mr. D’s microparticle.

“How come, how come…? People eat fish. The person who bought the frozen fish that had eaten me, decided to throw it to the garbage because it wasn’t that fresh anymore. Lucky him. Imagine that I would have ended up inside his stomach. Big problem for that person, right?… Anyways, back to my story. You know that in this country they do not collect the waste separately. So, here I am, in this landfill again. Happy?” 

“OK. Let’s say that I believe you. I have nothing to lose, so we’ll follow you. Please, show us the way.” replied Mr. D’s microparticle.

“Come on, guys. The ocean is calling us…!” the microparticle of a plastic cup urged them all. 

Having the plastic cup microparticle leading them, Mr. D’s microparticle and the rest of other microparticles started a long journey. Indeed, soon they reached a small river next to Bucharest, and then the currents carried them to the Danube River that empties into the Black Sea. 

It was an incredible chance for Mr. D’s  microparticle to explore the waters on the globe. He learned that the water constantly flows from one ocean to another, so he soon came to the conclusion that what happens in one part of the world affects the whole planet. In that moment, he wished that all humans would be aware of that. As for himself, he took the advice of staying away from any fish because he wanted to continue his journey, and make sure that he won’t affect a person’s health. 

After some months, he managed to reach a river in Australia called the Snowy River. Wait a second’, thought Mr. D. This is the irony of my destiny. Nikos’s teacher is from here. When I was still a part of Nikos’s water bottle, I saw his teacher showing pictures of this place to the fifth graders…

He couldn’t wait to make a stop on one of the shores and admire the beauty of the landscape. He was so close to his dream to come true. Very soon it happened that a current took him to a sand bank.  Now he was able to see nature around the river… The next second, Mr. D was in a state of shock. If he had tears, he would cry.  

He saw that the banks of the river were covered with a thick layer of ash, the trees were all burnt. 

Mr. D was devastated. What happened here? Mr. D asked himself, almost screaming. This is called the Snowy River. I should see colors: green, white, blue… 

His monologue was interrupted by a voice: “Good day, mate! I am an ash particle. Before I used to be a green leaf,” said the trembling voice. “I guess you are a foreigner. It seems you didn’t know Australia was tragically affected by a bushfire. Over a billion animals died. There were months of devastating wildfires,” sobbed the ash particle.

“B-B-But how.. why…?” groaned Mr. D’s microparticle. 

“It is a climate disaster. This is what the brave firefighters were saying while trying to save the forests and the animals.” explained the ash particle. “I guess the humans do not care enough about their planet, although it is the only one they have.”

“Indeed,” agreed Mr. D’s microparticle, feeling devastated. Then he added: “I am sorry! I feel I need to be alone now. It’s time for me to continue my journey. Farewell, my friend.” 

Mr D’s microparticle let himself be carried by the water current to an unknown destination, while he was reflecting about the future of the planet. He was convinced that the young generation is still able to shape their future. Then he had an idea. Perhaps, if he traveled more and if he told his story to many other children, they will take the time to think before every decision they make. 

Even a small action like recycling the plastic cap of your water bottle could make a big difference in the future.

                                                                   THE FUTURE IS OURS. 


References:

Ciel. “Emissions from Plastic Lifecycle.” 2019. Zero Waste Europe, May 2019, zerowasteeurope.eu/2019/05/plastic-is-a-part-of-the-global-climate-crisis-hiding-in-plain-sight/.

Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made.” Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made, Vol 2 Number 7 2017 ed.

Science Advances, “https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/plastic-pollution/.” www.Nationalgeographic.com. National Geographic: People, Animals, and the World, www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/plastic-pollution/.

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Ostopowich, Melanie. Waste. New York, Weigl Publishers, 2010.

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Revel & others, Messika. “Micro(nano)plastic : a Threat to Human Health?” Micro(nano)plastics: A Threat to Human Health?, Volume 1 pages 17-23 ed. Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, Science Direct, Feb. 2018, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2468584417300235. Accessed Mar. 2020.

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WorldWildLife. www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/fall-2019/articles/plastic-in-the-ocean.www.unenvironment.org. www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/.

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