By Lia Colabello, Principal of Plastic Pollution Solutions.
Lia Colabello launched Plastic Pollution Solutions to advise clients on how they can have an impact on critical ocean issues. She has 12 years of international experience with ocean conservation organisations. In this Soapbox article, Lia shares her thoughts on global environments devastated by plastic, solutions to the plastic crisis and what we can do as individuals.
The situation seems stark. Research indicates that the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute.
More than 5.2 trillion pieces of plastic can be found floating on the surface of the ocean, and we don’t know how much is sinking through the water column or has already sunk to the ocean floor. An estimated 700 marine species are affected by plastic pollution through ingestion and entanglement. Scientists estimate that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight).
Plastic has been around for more than a century, and the amount used in products and packaging is on a growth trajectory that is causing a global waste crisis. Countries without waste management infrastructure are suffering the most. Plastic packaging is tossed onto dump sites, washing away with the next rain, eventually making its way to the ocean via waterways that act as conveyor belts of trash. Once plastic enters the marine environment it begins to fragment into smaller pieces, becoming impossible to retrieve.
Children around the world are growing up near these dump sites and are bathing and playing in plastic-strewn waters. They will never know what their grandparents remember, a time that waste would biodegrade back into the natural environment. Now their landscapes, especially in the Global South, are being taken over by single-use plastics. While waste pickers provide some relief from the never-ending piles of plastic trash, in many parts of the world there are no large-scale systems to collect plastic, and nowhere to put it, leaving our plastic waste to further contaminate the planet.
I’ve seen video of villagers on remote islands throwing bags full of plastic trash into the ocean because there isn’t enough room on land to pile up their plastic waste. This plastic washes back onshore, littering coastlines and polluting fishing grounds. Generations of children will only know that plastic comes from the sea and goes back into the sea. This is the tragic legacy of the zero-sum game that is the plastics economy.
Plastic chemicals can be linked to chronic disease in humans. Scientists are researching the impacts of plastic in the food chain. Microplastics have been found in plankton, shellfish, fish, and many more marine species. Plastic has been found in salt, beer, tap water and other items that humans consume on a regular basis.
The growing plastic pollution crisis has spurred government leaders to push back on companies with regulations designed to jump start a new plastics economy that is circular in nature. The European Union recently mandated that all packaging on the EU market be reusable or recyclable by 2030. The EU is also looking at policy to challenge member countries to work to reduce the amount of single-use plastics put in consumer hands, with a focus on bags, bottles, straws, coffee cups/lids, cutlery and takeout containers. The UK also announced that it had similar concerns about disposable plastics and was evaluating next steps in policy.
This regulation in Europe comes on the heels of the enactment of China’s “Green Fence” policy that states the country will no longer accept imports of “foreign garbage.” The ban, which started in January 2018, is beginning to have a ripple effect globally, as plastic that previously would have been shipped to China is beginning to pile up in ports. The new concern is that this waste will now be sent to other countries in Southeast Asia and that these recipients are ill-equipped to handle the influx of the world’s plastic packaging waste.
There are many solutions to this global waste crisis, and they are all intertwined with each other. Policy is the most effective solution. Regulations such as those described above are critical to shifting the plastic economy’s current practices to a more sustainable, circular concept. Corporations have an even bigger opportunity to engage in solutions to plastic pollution because they have the funds to research and implement product, packaging and systems design change. Consumers have immense power to demand that corporations and policy makers implement this cycle of solutions. Indeed, consumers are exercising this power by supporting businesses that demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainability. Roughly 87% of consumers say they will switch brand loyalty and purchase products from companies that demonstrate concern for their environmental impact. An astounding 94% of GenZ survey participants believe that companies should address social and environmental issues. Companies are noticing these consumer trends.
Improving resource management is another crucial factor in providing solutions. We refer to this as a global waste crisis, but really, if we viewed waste as a resource, then we begin to look at our plastic “trash” differently. Regional recycling initiatives, embracing circular economy practices as suggested by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, along with the use of post-consumer recycled content in all plastic products and packaging, would go a long way towards shifting the current paradigm of a linear plastic economy to a circular one. Widespread adoption of these practices would help ensure that no country, no matter how impoverished, will suffer the burden of being the world’s garbage dump.
What is suggested above are massive system changes that we can all participate in advancing. Each one of us has a powerful sphere of influence that can be activated, whether it is advocating for plastic reduction policy, leading companies into embracing corporate responsibility, pushing for circular resource management or taking action within our communities by committing to use less single-use plastics in our daily lives. It may seem daunting at first, but focus on changing just one habit at a time, like bringing your own reusable mug to coffee shops. Once you establish a new routine, move on to the next goal to bring your own cutlery or shopping bag. It’s all about changing our habits and embracing the new plastics economy. Every time you bring your own bag or mug or cutlery, you send a message to that business that single-use plastic is unnecessary. If each one of us becomes an example to our friends and families, we may have a chance to dig ourselves out of this global waste crisis before it’s too late.
This piece has been written for Soapbox by Lia Colabello, Principal, Plastic Pollution Solutions - February 2018.
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