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Why plastic is at the center of every climate change discussion

Why plastic is at the center of every climate change discussion

Back in 2018, when Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania talked at Berlin’s Falling Walls conference, she showed photos of an uninhabited Henderson Island in the south Pacific. In her pictures, it was possible to see beaches littered with plastic debris, washed up from countries around the Pacific Rim and beyond. If you were able to see Henderson Island 30 years earlier, the landscape at this remote place would be quite different.  The very same beaches would have been covered with pristine sand, surrounded by crystal clear ocean waters. 

Photo: Henderson Island, by Jennifer Lavers

Images like that of Henderson Island have become popular in the plastic pollution debates, approaching climate change as an environmental issue in need of immediate attention. The urgency is needed, as it is estimated that 8 million tons of plastic flow into the oceans every year, killing over 1,400 marine species. However, solely focusing on the debris represents a very narrow view of the problem, as plastic pollutes at every step of its life.

Plastic is made from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. The process of extracting and transporting fossil fuels results in oil spills and groundwater pollution. Converting those fuels into plastic feedstocks requires large chemical processing plants, responsible for the emission of a variety of pollutants into the air, strongly affecting the health of nearby communities. When ready to be used, many plastics will transfer chemical additives to food, water, and ultimately our bodies. And finally, the disposal problem, as plastic stays around for hundreds of years or more.

How do we solve the problem?

Unfortunately, only 9% of the plastic in each product gets recycled. The majority ends up in landfills or the environment, and the broken down bits are starting to show up in unexpected places, from our tap water to our food, as very small microplastics.

Saving our environment from plastic is an urgent matter, and to come up with a solution we need to address two parts: 1) cleaning up what is already in the oceans and 2) stopping more from getting in.

Marine scientists argue that the overwhelming priority must be the last one, quickly stemming the flow of plastic that gets into our environment. Removing plastic from the oceans is expensive, due to the wide disbursement of debris. All of the clean-up movements can only mitigate 0.5% of plastic waste, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an anti-waste charity.

Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

That means that the solution is two-fold: changing both consumer behavior and product design to discourage non-essential use of plastics. For every person on Earth, there is now one ton of plastic. In North America alone, the average person uses more than 300 pounds of plastic per year - which amounts to almost one pound of plastic consumed per day.

Back to the fundamental law of supply and demand

Today industries continue producing and pushing plastic as an option. However, the consumers are becoming more educated and concerned about the source - and the destiny - of the products they buy. This creates the perfect opportunity to reshape our relationship with plastic. If we stop buying it, we will be sending a powerful message to those industries that they might be willing to acknowledge.

Simple shifts in habits, such as using a reusable shopping bag, carrying a bottle or mug for your beverages (even when ordering from a to-go shop), and choosing products made of alternative and more sustainable materials, already gives us the power to influence others to do the same. 

Photo: Alani Bamboo Sunglasses

Leading change starts with one person, in one household, one community, and one place at a time.


Cover photo: Jasmin Sessler



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