There’s something about ocean plastic pollution that people instantly get. Of course it’s wrong for a turtle to have a plastic straw stuck up its nose. Of course it’s wrong that a whale should mistake a plastic bag for prey. Of course it’s not right to turn the ocean into massive rubbish dump, where there’s more plastic than fish.
People seem to understand the necessary remediation, too. It’s clear we can’t recycle our way out this problem – nor should we be shipping our rubbish half way round the world due to a lack of recycling facilities here in the UK. The emphasis must be on reduction. Since we don’t live in a world where it’s always easy to go plastic-free, the public have taken to challenging politicians and retailers through petitions, twitter storms, and even leaving their packaging at the till.
For many years, plastics have been seen as the cheaper and more convenient option. However, the trial of destruction our throwaway culture has left behind is anything but. There may be expenses associated with introducing reusable packaging ranges and researching alternatives, but these are less important than profit at any cost. It might be easy to pick up a single-use carrier bag, but people seem increasingly willing to accept we can and should make these changes to our lifestyles.
While plastic pollution continues to fuel public anger, another more menacing threat to ocean life – and indeed, all life on earth – brews overhead. Climate change. Despite warnings of apocalypse from the world’s leading climate scientists, with outcomes that would destroy marine ecosystems through ocean acidification, habitat loss and food chain disruption, somehow these messages fail to translate into the actions required to halt impending catastrophe.
Is this due to the lack of emotional visuals provided by suffocating turtles and entangled whales? A sense of helplessness? Decades of misinformation drip-fed by industry and lobbyists? Pure denialism? While this poisonous cocktail has so far stalled the society-wide changes and deep decarbonisation needed to curtail spiralling temperatures rises, current levels of environmental wakefulness on plastics could be harnessed to provide the break-through moment so desperately required on climate action.
Much environmental commentary, rightly, focuses on politicians and consumer behaviour, as well as the activities of big corporations. But there’s more to it than that. We need to challenge the cultural fabric which connects these actions: the unsustainable consumption trends that one demands and the other supplies, through a relationship lubricated by advertisement and the media. Plastic pollution and climate change are just two problems fuelled by the bottomless pit of consumerism; lest we forget deforestation, worldwide habitat loss, toxic air and chemical pollution. It doesn’t start or finish at plastic, and it doesn’t have to be like this.
Being awake means challenging what you’re told to believe and do. It means that we tell retailers “NO, I do NOT need that plastic wrapping around my broccoli”, “NO, I do NOT need that carrier bag to carry this one loaf of bread down the road.” As well as challenging the outside world, we challenge our own behaviour, and this is what drives progress.
Take the rise in flexitarian diets, and the corresponding effect had on retailers rushing to supply more vegetarian and vegan options. Through saying no to meat and dairy, we shape the behaviour of business, and we shape the environmental impact. Less carbon, less river pollution, less deforestation for animal feed, fewer antibiotics. When enshrined in legislative action, the magic happens: take the 80% reduction in single use plastic bags following the introduction of the 5p charge, and corresponding impact on marine pollution. But these patches of progress are set in the quilt-work of Western overconsumption of resources: of fossil fuels, of minerals, of plastics. We need to challenge the supply, and we need to challenge the demand.
Marine pollution could be a gateway issue that inspires and requires corporate changes and policy measures on a much greater scale. To make this possible, we need to ensure the conversation isn’t limited to plastics, but the convenience culture and single-use society that underpin it. If we can connect these dots and inspire the momentum and will-power needed, perhaps the last hope isn’t lost for the 1.5°C warming threshold.