How Our World Can Beat Plastic Pollution

In the world of tomorrow, plastics will certainly call the tune.”

That statement from a 1950s documentary on the new age of plastics is worse than ironic; it has become tragic. Back then, the promise of plastics for the world of tomorrow was about replicating everything that used to be made with natural products and creating cheaper, plastic versions of them instead. Even pianos. Or art! In many ways, that’s what happened, but the most insidious yet seemingly harmless proliferation of plastics in the last 70 years was not about the products themselves, which were often cheaper and more durable versions of what had been made in the past. The real scourge of plastic on our Earth and its ecosystem is not as much the plastic products we use and re-use, but the plastic packaging we use and dispose; we are using durable, multiple-use petroleum-based material that never fully degrades in the environment as disposable, single-use garbage. It’s the plastic water bottles and pop bottles. The plastic straws. The plastic solo cups and other disposable beverage containers. The hard-shell plastic around our household appliances and electronic products. Our excessively packaged processed foods. Even our fresh produce, where berries are sold in plastic baskets, salad mixes are in sealed plastic bags and cucumbers are shrink-wrapped.

During different periods in history, people often become collectively aware of a deadly social, environmental or political issue that captivates society, propels a movement and transforms ordinary people into activists inspired to change the status quo – slavery, child labor laws, addiction, fascism, racism, nuclear proliferation, homophobia and global warming, for example. Ever since the Paris Agreement set out clear goals for participating nations to reduce carbon emissions, a new issue has been seeping into the collective consciousness and motivating individuals to change their behavior and governments to ensure that industries stop contributing to the problem. Plastic waste in our oceans, our landfills and even in the food and water we consume has become one of the most pressing issues of 2018. Stories about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch swirling in the Pacific, microplastics found in our bottled water and even a pilot whale that died near Thailand after swallowing 80 plastic bags have received an unprecedented amount of media coverage, considering that the issue is not at all a new one – it’s been around for almost seven decades now. Yet this year it has been galvanizing social change from schoolchildren, who recently participated in a plastic bag cleanup in their communities, up to governments, who are beginning to enforce a ban on disposable plastics such as bags, straws and cups, in the first stage of a cultural change that may eventually lead to bans or restrictions on other disposables such as water bottles or unnecessary packaging of foods and other manufactured products.

Today, to help us reflect and act on the United Nations’ World Environment Day with its #BeatPlasticPollution theme, here are a few massive NGO- and government-led initiatives announced in 2018.

The world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle was unveiled in Amsterdam today as pressure to curb the world’s plastic binge and its devastating impact on the planet continues to grow. With nearly 700 plastic-free goods to select from at one of the branches of Ektoplaza, a Dutch supermarket chain, the aisle gives shoppers the opportunity to but their groceries in “new compostable bio-materials as well as traditional materials” such as glass, metal and cardboard. –  Feb 28, 2018, CNN World

The Ocean Cleanup …expects to bring 5,000 kilograms of plastic ashore per month with its first system. With a full fleet of systems deployed, it believes it can collect half of the plastic trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – around 40,000 metric tons – within five years. –  April 20, 2018, Fast Company

The UK is set to ban all sales of single-use plastics, including plastic straws and cotton swabs from the country as early as next year…plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges the country faces. – April 25, 2018, Forbes

A year after Kenya announced the world’s toughest ban on plastic bags, and eight months after it was introduced, the authorities are claiming victory – so much so that other east African nations Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are considering following suit. – April 25, 2018, The Guardian

Vancouver will become the first major Canadian city to ban plastic drinking straws, as it reduces its reliance on disposable single-use items that end up in landfills or incinerators. The straw ban, which takes effect in the fall of next year, is part of a suite of waste-reducing policies adopted this week…” – May 17, 2018, The Globe and Mail

San Diego is considering a ban on polystyrene food containers that, if passed, would make it the largest California city to do so…More than 116 cities in California have banned the product over concerns about ocean pollution and marine life health, according to the Los Angeles Times. –  June 2, 2018, The Hill

On 30 May, Chile became the first South American country to approve a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags, garnering congratulations from around the world for its efforts to beat plastic pollution ahead of World Environment Day on 5 June…The ban will come into force in one year’s time for major retailers and in two years’ time for smaller businesses. –  June 2, 2018, UN Environment

Find out what you can do on World Environment Day and beyond.

“If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.”

#BeatPlasticPollution