The Plastic Problem

By Amie Williams

Avoiding single-use plastic has become synonymous with saving the planet. Anyone caught buying a plastic shopping bag is destined to shame internally and from fellow shoppers. Even if I was the thirstiest I have ever been in my life, it would take a lot for me to gather up the courage to buy a bottle of water from the shop. If this does happen, I will reuse that bottle daily, yet still want to hang a sign above my head to let everyone know that I am reusing it as much as I physically can. This phenomena of ‘plastic guilt’ (self-coined term) ignited on the last episode of Blue Planet 2 and our nation’s father, David Attenborough, kickstarted a new era of environmentalism. After sitting down to watch an albatross feed plastic to its new born chicks, 88% of people claim to have changed their behaviour. Further, Waitrose saw an 800% increase in questions about plastic from their customers. This remarkable shift in consumer perception has been brandished ‘The Blue Planet Effect’. However, it is questionable how reliable this self-reported data is as a study found that despite an increase in understanding, this did not translate to a behavioural change. This may be in part due to human nature, set in our ways and gravitating towards the easier, cheaper option. Nevertheless, ‘The Blue Planet Effect’ should not have just been a wakeup call to just consumers, but to governments and big corporations too who need to step-up and face the music.

In a bid towards reducing plastic pollution, plastic straws, coffee stirrers and plastic earbuds have been banned in the UK. It is undeniable that this will have a positive effect on the environment as the 5p charge on plastic bags cut sales by 95% in major supermarkets. While I agree that these are all progressive actions, I can’t help but feel that plastic straws to pollution are what university students are to coronavirus. There is no denying that without single-use plastic items, there will be less plastic prevalence in the environment. However, these efforts are placing the guilt of plastic pollution on the consumer, without addressing large-scale polluters such as multi-national companies and corporations. A much less widespread fact than the well-known detrimental effects of plastic straws, is that Coca-Cola has the largest plastic footprint globally, despite voluntarily signing up to 10 different initiatives to address plastic waste. The company appears to be riddled with hypocrisies, as despite committing to a ‘World Without Waste’, its targets have been distracted, delayed and derailed. In 1990, the company pledged to 25% recycled content in their bottles, yet in 2020 their recycled content is only 10%. Despite the obvious health benefits of avoiding the fizzy drinks, if everyone boycotted the company it would impede 2.9 million tonnes of plastic entering the environment annually. This begs the question, why aren’t there mass media campaigns and government regulations banning the sale or consumption of Coca-Cola?

Photo by alleksana on Pexels.com

If you can’t bring yourself to step away from the fizzy beverage then another less documented, yet widespread plastic polluter needs to be addressed – the fishing industry. The very nature of plastic that makes it so appealing, is its biggest detriment. The lightweight, durable, cheap and buoyant material is now ubiquitous in fishing equipment. However, this also means that once fishing gear is lost, or purposefully dropped, it will remain in the marine environment forever. This abandoned equipment is known as ‘ghost gear’, which is inflicting detrimental effects on marine organisms, like the ones you saw in Blue Planet 2. An estimated 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear enters the ocean every year, particularly originating from illegal and undocumented fishing. It is an enormous problem in the plastic pollution sector, with approximately 300 sea turtles discovered dead in a single incident in 2018, entangled in a ghost fishing net in Mexican waters. This is not to mention the additional plastic waste from the containers, buoys and extra equipment associated with fishing. For those who don’t eat fish due to animal rights reasons, this is a no-brainer. However, even if you don’t mind the notion of fishing, this increase in plastic pollution in the ocean is also having an effect on you. Macro-, meso-, and micro-plastics are being consumed by fish, leading to an accumulation up the food-chain until it reaches your cod and chips. Nowadays, it would be almost impossible to avoid ingesting micro-plastics, as they have even been detected in human placenta. Yet surely, in order to reduce the plastic pollution problem, the fishing industry must have strict regulations and sanctions in place to prevent further contamination. Again, this begs the question of why there has been no widespread government attempt to prevent the fishing industry from releasing so much plastic, and to prevent consumers from endorsing this sector?

Forgive me for being so cynical, but the hypocrisy and consumer blame is so blatantly evident, yet unless you are aware, you wouldn’t know. It is pretty evident that if I, in my little village in South Wales, boycotted the local chippy, it will have greater effects on the local business than on the fishing industry. In order to achieve the transformational change that the plastic pollution problem needs, it must be led by a strict top-down approach. Increasing consumer knowledge and banning the sale of items is definitely a step in the right direction. Yet allowing large companies and industries to continue to side-step regulations, while placing blame on the consumer, is hypocritical and unjust.

I guess there’s a lot more money in Coca-Cola than there is in plastic straws though right?

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves