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.
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!