The biggest perpetrator is single use plastics – the straw, ketchup sachet or cigarette butt tossed mindlessly into a gutter. But plastic doesn’t go away. Sunlight, wind and water break it down into smaller pieces called microplastics which for a host of marine animals look and smell like food. Plastic can cause perforated organs and clog the digestive tract so much that animals can no longer consume real food. The problem is so now serious that unless something is done fast to prevent more pollution, the health of our oceans, and therefore life on Earth, hangs in the balance.
Alongside sweeping system changes, there are many things individuals can do to refuse, reuse, and reduce our plastic waste, as environmental campaigner and first female chair of the Surfrider Foundation, Susie Crick explains.
One of my colleagues at the Surf Rider’s Association often tells me that plastic pollution is a design choice. I agree with that, however I think we can all contribute to the global solution. It’s not just that it’s a design choice. Our purchases, our wallets, have contributed to this overload of single use plastic that we’ve been seeing over the last few years.
Change is happening and everyone is on a different part of that journey. Some people do beach cleans, some sign petitions, some have a bit more time and passion and write to politicians. But most of us have become so dependent on the convenience of single use plastics that now we’re blind to it. We all need to sit back, consider and realize what part we have played in this plastic dilemma and what we want and can do about it.
You might wonder why I’m so focused on the single use plastic issue. Well, I live on the beach, I love the ocean and I have a strong passion to end ocean microplastics. What’s out there in the ocean is a direct result of our actions here on land. We have to start changing our practices and our dependence on plastic. When I go into a supermarket, I’m surrounded by these amazingly packaged and beautifully marketed products. But I want to buy what’s inside the packaging, not the package itself.
Vote with our wallets
There is a big discussion on the cost of not using plastic. But it’s quite simple. The cost of inaction further down the line is much, much more. As individuals, we have to make those informed choices whenever possible and know that we have the power to vote with our wallets. Companies produce based on the demand. So, if we stop buying or using single use plastics, those products will stop appearing on our shelves and ending up in landfill or in the ocean. If it sounds simple, that’s because it really is that simple.
But we can’t rely on companies to do the right thing. To do something for the greater good tends to cost more. That shouldn’t be the case and many companies, including B Corps affiliates, have bucked that trend. But the majority of processes and companies are set up to do one thing and one thing only: return a profit to their shareholders.
As feel good as they want to be for the environment and with all the messaging thrown our way, they will usually view any switch to a more environmental packaging or process as a cost that is borne by the shareholder. In fact, many companies and board directors can’t even make the right decision because of this effect.
So, if it’s unrealistic to expect some corporations to make the changes then the change is down to us. That starts at the local level and builds out. As an individual and someone out shopping, you can choose to not purchase something wrapped in single use plastic and feel good about a choice that hasn’t cost you anything.
Sometimes, you will be buying a product and you don’t have a choice when it comes to single use plastic. They will force it on you, either through the product design, laziness or habit. Well, the thing about single use plastic is that you are likely to use it in that instant – or maybe a few minutes – and then it gets thrown away. Again, the answer is simple. Just take it back. Chances are you’re still right by the store or shop. Give the corporation the responsibility of disposing of this pointless product. Sure, if it’s just your straw or cup or sauce sachet then it’s no big thing. But when it’s hundreds or thousands of people in a store every single day – it starts to cost them and then they’ll rethink their processes. Again, if it sounds simple, that’s because it is!
But the beginning of the end of the plastic pollution problem will really come around when governments force the manufacturers to own the problem that they are creating. We as the consumers have to put pressure on governments to put pressure on the corporations to restrict the amounts and types of waste they produce and to incentivize waste reduction. Only then will we see real change. I have no doubt that corporations will quickly find a way to change their practice to maintain their profits, and have probably already worked it out.
Just say no to single use plastics. That may sound weak and small for one person. Well, one person may only be able to do so much, but 8 billion can do so much more.
We need to remember that the oceans have no borders. Whether it’s in Australia, or the North Sea, or the Baltics, we all live downstream. Once the rubbish is in the sea, it’s too late. It has to be stopped at source. Although the best entry point for a person who wants to start dabbling in the environment is a beach clean-up, I challenge everyone to dive in deep and get involved, get informed, start writing letters, put pressure on your governments and authorities and international institutions.
In Australia, our population is small but our land is vast and full of incredibly rich minerals. We’re so reliant on the mining sector. It’s why we do well as a country. Those mining companies weald the power. Consumer actions can’t do much about that, so we need to start putting pressure on governments to force the big corporations to clean up their act.
When it comes to action, it’s a generational issue. Education has to start young and we have to ensure children understand what is happening from the outset. I’m talking preschool age. You would be amazed how much power a four-year-old has when they see with their own eyes that down on the beach there is rubbish. They don’t like the fact it’s easier to collect bottle caps and lolly sticks than seashells and seaweed.
I work in a preschool and we go to the beach and we do beach cleans and that’s how we start them on that journey. You’d be surprised by the number of parents who say that now they go to the beach and all the child wants to do is collect rubbish. Well, that’s a good thing! It shows good stewardship and a respect for the natural world which, frankly, is lacking in the parents’ generation. Kids don’t want to see their beaches polluted and they’re doing something about it.
When you talk to children about the environment and climate change you quickly realise that the youth has got it right. They don’t want to inherit this convenience and dependence that we have on single use plastics. When you stand alongside your children, you find your voice because you’re suddenly invested so much more in their future. And what parent doesn’t want to do that for their kids?