When you consider that every plastic water bottle, spoon, or yogurt tub you’ve ever used will probably outlive you, plastic begins to seem like a bad idea. And when you hear how much plastic we’ve forced upon our oceans – you’ll realise our plastic addiction is catastrophic.
Plastic pollution is a global problem. Western nations have spent decades fuelling the demand for a never-ending supply of single-use plastic products. Thanks to public education programs and government-funded waste management policies, the 21st century has seen significant improvements in recycling rates in Australia, North America and Europe. A failure to address plastic waste in developing countries in a similar way is having a devastating impact on our oceans.
How bad is plastic pollution?
According to the first rigorous global estimate into the area, around 8 million metric tonnes of plastic debris are deposited into our oceans each year. If that’s difficult to picture, try this – that’s the same as 16 shopping bags full of plastic for every metre of coastline (not including Antarctica). Other estimates place the amount as similar to 100 billion plastic milk bottles or even half the distance between the Earth and Mars.
If hasn’t scared you off plastic water bottles, try this: if pollution rates remain unchecked, there could soon be as much plastic in our oceans as there are fish.
So where is all this plastic coming from, and what can we do about it?
Plastic: a great equaliser
Currently, all but one of the worst offenders for plastic marine debris are developing nations. Most of these countries have rapidly rising middle classes, but trash collections of around 40% nationally, rather than the 95% achieved in the United States.
In a previous blog, I called plastic humanity’s greatest ‘frenemy’ – both a friend and enemy of life on earth. ‘Plastic free lives’ are difficult yet possible within wealthy societies – but much harder without easily accessible clean water and food refrigeration. So when plastic is saving lives, how can we condemn its use?
Plastic is not just helping people around the world – it’s also hurting them.
The impact of plastic debris travels beyond our oceans. The plastic in the world’s seas also has economic implications for coastal tourism industries in developing countries, not to mention small-scale fisheries.
When eaten by marine life, small plastic fragments like microbeads can end up on our dinner plates. In 2012, a study found blue mussels contained microplastics in their digestive systems. As the Director of Research at the 5 Gyres Institute aptly commented: “We’re literally eating our own trash”.
Not only that – plastic also acts as a chemical magnet for pollutants, which are absorbed first into plastic materials and then possibly into the animals which mistakenly eat them.
This makes it clear: plastic marine debris is bad news for the oceans and economies of developing nations, and potentially disastrous for human health.
So what can we do about global marine debris in Australia?
Waste collection and plastics recycling are important ways to cut down on marine debris, but many Australians are lucky enough to have the means to attack our problem at its root: the overproduction of single-use plastics.
Developing nations might currently have the largest plastic pollution rates in the world, but people in the West are using far more plastic on average. For example, although the US comes in 20th on the global ranking and account for less than 1% of global waste – citizens produce more than 2.5kg of plastic waste every day. That’s more than twice the amount used by people in China.
Plastic containers may be able to get food to starving people in disaster zones – but it’s hard to see the worth of an individual sachet of tomato sauce. It’s time we change the way we interact with plastic – particularly when our lives don’t depend on it.
Need help getting started? Here are 10 quick tips to help you go from using plastic less to living a plastic free life:
2. Learn more about plastics and how to recycle them. This blog will take you through what you can and can’t recycle, and other organisations like Planet Ark have great learning resources to help guide you.
3. Teach your friends and family about the importance of proper recycling. More people would think twice about littering if they knew the consequences plastic pollution has on our waterways, oceans and marine life. Share the information you find and try to positively influence the consumption and recycling habits of those around you.
4. Join an initiative to help clean up your local area. Whether it’s participating in the annual Clean Up Australia Day or joining a Responsible Runners group – there are lots of ways you can have fun and curb plastic pollution at the same time.
5. Or, if you’d prefer, fly solo and join the Take3 challenge: pick up three pieces of litter from your local beach, river, park or street every day.
6. Check the products you buy for microbeads. Often the use of microbeads – tiny plastic beads found in many cosmetics and toiletries – is advertised, but they can also be hiding in the ingredients list. Luckily, the folks at Beat the Microbead have made an app to help you find out if these tiny pollutants are in your favourite products.
7. Remember to bring your reusable containers with you. Cloth shopping bags, stainless steel water bottles and travel mugs are great – as long as you’ve got them with you when you need them.
8. Opt out of disposable plastics when you’re eating out. Doing things like bringing your own container and recyclable or compostable cutlery for take-out meals and saying no to straws may seem strange, but it’ll help you cut down on one-use plastics.
9. Think about excess packaging whenever you’re making purchases. Try to veer towards foods and goods packaged in paper or other recyclable materials rather than plastic wrapping – or better yet, nothing at all! You can read here about Berlin’s new no-packaging supermarket!