Before we knew the true impact the rise and rise of plastic happened for a reason. It’s not hard to see why plastics became so popular across the planet. As a product plastic delivers. It’s light, durable and cheap. Early marketing sold the benefits of plastic teaching us that plastics help our food to stay fresh longer, improve hygiene and it could show us what we are buying.
Companies cleverly positioned plastics encouraging the material to be integrated into our everyday lives.
For example, Dow Chemicals used a tagline in the 1950s telling American’s that plastics were as American as Apple Pie.
Plastics were a win-win product saving companies money by helping to make products lighter, which saved on shipping costs. On top of this plastic products and packaging delivered more convenience and other benefits including keeping our foods cleaner and fresher. As wealth and prosperity grew, companies’ competed and encouraged people to keep on spending. Consumerism emerged. With increased consumption, a culture that accepted throwing things away grew.
If you think about it, this had to occur or we would have all collapsed under the weight of the increasing number of “things” we owned. Think about how the size of our houses, wardrobes and more have grown making it easy for us to keep consuming.
Why did throwing things away become so normal? Many point back to an August 1955, LIFE magazine article that was published with the celebratory title “Throwaway Living.”
The TIME article stated: ‘The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean – except that no housewife need bother. They are all meant to be thrown away after use’. People were actively encouraged to throw things away.
Over time the true impact of our consumption patterns has emerged. Plastic, an entirely man-made material, is built to last. Plastic is like stone. It lasts forever. Today we know that many forms of plastics will never break down. Don’t be fooled by claims about bio-degradable bags either. Studies show that exact conditions need to exist for the bio-degrading process to occur. For example, one plastic was designed to break down in sunlight, yet frequently this plastic is put into landfill where the plastic is buried and as a consequence, it will never see the sun. It is impossible for the plastic to break down as planned because of our waste management system.
Today we know, that our planet is drowning in plastic. Statistics reported by Ocean Conservancy[i] indicate that 8 million metric tonnes of plastics enters our ocean each year. Current estimates suggest that 150 million metric tons is circulating in our marine environments.
Since first introduced into the mainstream market 60 years ago our oceans have become the reservoir for exponentially increasing amounts of plastic waste[ii]. Plastic has been found in the deepest oceanic trenches, on the planets most far-flung beaches, inside animals and even in snow in the Arctic in its most-micro form.
A look at manufacturing statistics for plastics is concerning. Current estimates indicate continued and very high rates of growth. We know that half of all plastic that has been manufactured during the past sixty years (~8,300 million metric tons; Mt) was produced in the last 13 years (3,900 Mt). And we know rates of growth are forecast to continue.
Conservationists have identified a wide range of highly memorable statistics that indicate this is a very, very big problem. Estimates suggest:
- There is more microplastic in our ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way
- By 2050 it is expected there will be more plastic than fish in our seas.
- Over one million seabirds are killed by ocean pollution each year
- Cigarette butts, plastic bags, fishing gear, and food and beverage containers are the most common forms of plastic pollution found in the oceans[iii].
- 90% of all plastic items are used once and then discarded[iv]
WWF[v] statistics suggest that on average, each Australian uses 130 kg of plastic every year. Only 12% of that is recycled. Most plastics cannot be easily recycled and at present only PET and different types of PE can be shredded, melted and remoulded. Even then the recycled plastic is not as pure and strong as virgin produced plastic. Recycling solutions that can comfortably handle the amount of plastic waste we are producing are a long way off.
While we may wish to believe that by placing our plastics into our recycling bin we are protecting our planet, this is so far from the truth. Today, we know that 88% of the plastic waste we dispose of in our recycling bins will enter the waste management system and some of this will be on its way to our ocean.
That means next year you will use 114 kilograms of plastic that can’t be recycled.
Is this really OK?
In 2019 I was chosen by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to deliver a program with Waste Management expert Sunil Herat. This Short Term Award project bought together 25 talented Indonesians. These are talented professionals who work every day to “Tackle Marine Pollution” through behaviour change, education, plastics recycling, policy and more.
Over the past 6 months, I have been moved. Prior to my involvement in this course, I believed my efforts to recycle were enough. I have come to understand this is far from the truth.
My daily work is behaviour change and I clearly understand that problems like single-use plastic require shared responsibility and action at all levels.
My involvement in this project has made me reflect on my own buying patterns and it has motivated me to act. I floated the idea with my two daughters, currently aged 23 and 19, who still lives with me at home. I needed their support if I was to achieve a single-use plastic-free household in 2020. I was so heartened with their reactions. Both were on board straight away and they were quickly on the Internet searching for single-use plastic-free alternatives. You can follow us in 2020 to see all of the fabulous things we find.
When #tinychangetribe was launched at Change 2019, the Rundle-Thiele household signed up declaring our intent publicly for the first time. The need for us all to act is clear. Will you join our quest in 2020 to find ways to eliminate single-use plastic? Or, is there another tiny change you can make in 2020?
Each action we take will cause a reaction. In the words of Gandhi, “you must be the change you want to see in the world.”
I for one do not wish to keep seeing this.
[i] Ocean Conservancy (2019) Website available online at https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/plastics-in-the-ocean/
[ii] Lavers, J.L., Dicks, L., Dicks, M.R. et al. Significant plastic accumulation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Australia. Sci Rep 9, 7102 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-43375-4
[iii] Passport Ocean Website. Available online at https://passportocean.com/2018/02/24/facts-plastics-oceans/
[iv] Rhodes, C.J. (2019) Solving the plastic problem: From cradle to grave, to reincarnation. Science Progress, 102 (3), 218-248.
[v] WWF Website. Available online at https://www.wwf.org.au/get-involved/plastics#gs.jm73p3