Message in a bottle

Our Plas­tic Chal­lenge is over. For sev­en weeks we have forced our­selves to find alter­na­tives for plas­tic pack­ag­ing. Now that we are used to these changes, we keep avoid­ing plas­tic as much as pos­si­ble. But indi­vid­ual choic­es are not enough — we need major social changes.

Everything flows to the sea

If I have learned any­thing dur­ing this Chal­lenge, it is that plas­tic pol­lu­tion is not just a prob­lem in devel­op­ing coun­tries. Once you start look­ing for it, there is lit­ter every­where, even in the nicest sub­urbs of Aberdeen. On the beach, the flood line is clut­tered with plas­tic. Recent research around the Scot­tish islands has shown that a lot of plas­tic floats around in this rel­a­tive­ly unspoiled area. The same is true for the Arc­tic Ocean. Erik van Sebille says in the Dutch news­pa­per Trouw:

(…) it is cer­tain that of the plas­tic we have found in the Arc­tic Ocean, noth­ing comes from South­east Asia. This is real­ly waste that end­ed up in the sea in the US and Europe.

Bird with plastic

By invent­ing plas­tic, we have cre­at­ed a mate­r­i­al that is made to last, breaks up into micro­scop­i­cal­ly small pieces and absorbs tox­ins. Most of the plas­tic par­ti­cles float­ing in the ocean are small­er than a cen­time­tre. That is too small to be picked up by, for exam­ple, The Ocean Cleanup. And the pol­lu­tion is not lim­it­ed to the sea. Plas­tic par­ti­cles have been found in hon­ey, beer and tap water (Guardian).

It starts in the shop

Almost every­thing you buy is pack­aged in plas­tic. Soft drink bot­tles, wrapped sand­wich­es. You fin­ish your cup of cof­fee at the train sta­tion with­in three min­utes, but the lid will live on for decades if it is unlucky enough to wind up in a land­fill or on the street. And the more plas­tic there is in the super­mar­ket or the can­teen, the more will end up on the street. Of course there is no excuse for lit­ter­ing, but the fact is that it hap­pens. The most effi­cient way to tack­le lit­ter is to have less plas­tic in shops.

Com­pa­nies must take respon­si­bil­i­ty. Unilever is try­ing to close the loop of plas­tic recy­cling. The New Plas­tics Econ­o­my is anoth­er ini­tia­tive that sup­ports inno­v­a­tive ideas to elim­i­nate plas­tic waste. The gov­ern­ment is also tak­ing mea­sures: in the Nether­lands and the UK there are new plans to start or expand deposit return schemes. Pos­i­tive devel­op­ments, but I think we can chal­lenge the indus­try more.

Plastic Challenge for manufacturers

Instead of always choos­ing for con­ve­nience, you some­times have to force your­self. At least that is our expe­ri­ence: we only real­ly changed our habits when we did­n’t allow our­selves to buy plas­tic. As a soci­ety we can do some­thing sim­i­lar. When Nor­way began to levy tax­es on plas­tic pack­ag­ing made of ‘vir­gin’ plas­tic, the bev­er­age indus­try was quick to set up a deposit sys­tem. I would argue for a high tax on all pack­ag­ing that is not com­postable or recy­cled: The Plas­tic Chal­lenge for man­u­fac­tur­ers!

Matt car­toon, copy­right of The Tele­graph