A Life of Plastic is Not So Fantastic

09 January 2017

Our environment is currently facing the most devastating impacts of plastic pollution to which we have ever seen in the course of human history. Much of the problem can be attributed to single-use plastics. Since plastic does not biodegrade, it merely accumulates year after year. Sadly we’re now all too familiar with plastic bottles obnoxiously trashed in our environment. This is something that exists in plain sight. However, we are still very much distanced from the shocking reality of this massive and continually growing problem. Plastic pollution travels easily from land to sea. Recent studies estimate that 5 to 13 million metric tonnes of plastic litter enter our oceans every year. To put these figures into a more graspable comparison, that’s the equivalent to five plastic grocery bags bursting with plastics for every foot of coastline.

Krichim, Boat in plastic, April 25, 2009. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff

The sheer scale of this problem means that our ocean is fast becoming a plastic soup. Our ocean gyres create vast rubbish vortexes, where plastic amasses and breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Micro-plastics are not always observable to the naked eye, which eludes the seriousness of its capacity for damage. It also instills a false sense of security in us that we do not need to act to reduce our consumption.

Not only does ‘out of sight, out of mind’ play into the problem of plastic pollution, but our actions are also a response to social conditioning.

Explicit messages have been barreled into us to renounce our conservation ethic that we developed during the Great Depression and World War II. Productivity needed to increase to support growing industries, and the introduction of disposables promised to liberate us. The popularity of plastic, as a versatile, lightweight, flexible, strong, and relatively inexpensive material, grew complementary to the fast-paced consumer-driven society we recognize today. Our supermarkets now glisten with aisles upon aisles of plastics, coating our foods and drinks. For many of us, it has permeated every aspect of our lives – within our homes, our workplaces, our cars, our clothing, and our technology. The list of things touched by plastic is seemingly endless.

However, our convenience does not go without consequence. The widespread prevalence of plastics to support our “throwaway” lifestyle has caused a whirlwind of environmental ruin. We cannot support the levels of plastic production our society now demands. Most plastics are produced from petroleum or natural gas, non-renewable resources extracted and processed using energy-intensive techniques that wreak havoc on fragile ecosystems. The manufacture and incineration of plastics pollutes land, water, and air.

Although this is a global problem, the solution lies at a local and individualized level. Small changes to one’s lifestyle can produce significant trickle-down effects in reducing the amount of total plastic pollution. For instance, over a 2-month period, just 1 Little Penguin filter prevents 250 single-use plastic water bottles clogging up our environment. This behavioral change requires very little effort to put into practice, and yet the significance of re-using rather than discarding is huge.  Importantly, the message to be understood is not one of doom and gloom. Rather, it is of the potential for collective action in finding innovative solutions for positive change. There is a way to solve this problem – whether it’s through culture, policy, or the actions of individuals.

You can make a difference.