12 Things I’ve Learnt About The Plastic Problem in 2016
It’s been a mental year, I haven’t studied issues and science so much since I was at Uni, but it’s been fascinating both from the business perspective and the environmental perspective. These are twelve key things I have drawn from it. They are twelve things that everybody needs to think about.
- A lot of people have no idea where plastic in the ocean comes from. I have sat on two regional and one national radio phone ins on the subject in the last twelve months. The most common thing people asked was how did it get there, and most assumed it is getting dropped on beaches. The connection between rubbish being dropped on a street, or coming from rubbish dumps and getting into the ocean simply is not made. Likewise I did a talk to 300 intelligent folk, and none understood how cotton buds were making it to the ocean, they were obviously good folk as they didn’t flush them, but they were astounded when I told them how common they are.
- Getting face to face with people and showing them the photographic evidence of plastic pollution on remote and not so remote beaches is incredibly effective. Of all the places I’ve talked (and I’ve talked to about 16k people now), I have helped to inspire mini activists. Social media is great, but I sometimes think we’re all talking to the converted in an environmental high fiving bubble.
- One question levelled at me all the time is, “What’s the point in us doing anything when the whole of Asia isn’t, they are a much bigger problem”. Well Asia is putting more plastic in the ocean than any other region, but when you start looking and talking, there are more grass roots activists in Indo and South Asia making positive changes than we have here, it’s going to take all of us to make a change, that statement doesn’t rub.
- Not all plastic is bad, we can’t all become hardcore activists towards every ounce of the stuff, I’ve got friends with it in their hearts, keeping them alive, I drive a car I can afford because of plastic components. We cannot demonise it all but…
- There is a huge amount of plastic that we can do without, and I mean a huge amount, so let’s start with water bottles. Bottled water is a commodity we have been conned into thinking we need when we don’t. Someone at work, here in the UK asked me if the water was safe to drink the other day or should she buy bottled? Buying bottled water is lazy. Buying a reusable bottle and refilling it takes a little thought but automatically removes tonnes of the stuff. Yes there are some parts of the world that need bottled water, but we sure don’t in the UK. Then there is every other single use plastic source from coffee cups to cotton buds, there is tonnes of the stuff going to waste every day, and there are alternatives.
- Science does not yet know the health impacts of plastic. Seriously the jury is out, and is likely to be for years, we do know that some of the chemicals from plastics can alter hormonal balance, cause cancer and many other things, but there is not enough research yet to build a head of steam to make it ethically unacceptable to use it. It’s scary to think that in twenty years there may well be health implications of using plastic that we just don’t understand yet. I’ve interviewed a number of scientists, and no one is sure yet, it’s that simple, there are ideas though.
- Humans are rubbish at putting value on something which we started off thinking of as cheap. Like free content on the internet, plastic was seen as a use and throwaway commodity. Since the fifties it’s been marketed as such and has stuck. Aluminium on the other hand was always treated as having some value, and thus we actively recycle, and in a lot of places, make a bit of cash out of it. Now plastic is harder to recycle, but putting a value on it will help. This is why campaigns like SAS’ message in a bottle is so important, reverse vending etc. is one of the future options which has to be implemented.
- We are rubbish at recycling and we are suckers for convenience, and it has been bred into us. Long working hours, lots of packaged convenience food and beverages, we’ve been bred to accept convenience and accept that packaging and single use is OK and someone else will deal with it; they won’t and we’re bursting at capacity point.
- Corporate responsibility is complicated. I have interviewed folk from Coca Cola right down to one man eco brands, as well as people from organisations like The Ellen Macarthur Foundation who are pushing for the New Plastic Circular Economy. The bottom line is the picture is complicated, there is a lot of greenwashing, but there are also a lot of big companies who are actively spending a lot of money on plastic alternatives. Too many put all the responsibility on the consumer, and there is no doubt that some of the responsibility does lie there. One thing that everyone is getting better at is recognising the problem, but sadly profit and shareholder happiness still trumps the environment in too many companies.
- Plastic production is increasing, and is contributing towards climate change.
- Every solution has a valid place in the answer. Beach cleans; recycling; cutting out packaging; refusing single use; putting pressure on corps; government; reverse vending; switching to a circular economy; walking into classrooms and presenting the problem in new ways; finding alternatives to plastic; and using huge booms to pick up stuff. It all has a place, none are silver bullets, all are essential parts of our arsenal.
- IF WE ALL DO NOTHING WE ARE GOING TO KILL OUR OCEANS AND THEN OUR PLANET, IT’S THAT SIMPLE, AND ALL 7 BILLION OF US HAVE A JOB TO DO, SO WE NEED TO START SPREADING THE MESSAGE A LOT FURTHER.
I keep going to remoter and remoter coastlines, and I can’t wait until 2017 to share the adventures, but one thing is consistent, they all have plastic pollution, we have a mountain to climb, but we have started.
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