***SPOILER! This is not a date night (although the idea of litter picking on a beach clean up isn’t a terrible one)***
I had a bit of a shock today. Not only did I watch “A Plastic Ocean” on Netflix which is harrowing enough in itself, but upon googling “millennials plastic” assuming that I’d find lots of inspirational stories of young people saving the planet I found this:
It was disturbing to see that millennials are more sooner linked with cosmetic surgery than to their behaviour around solving plastic pollution crisis.
I recently did what more and more millennials (people born between 1981 – 1997) are doing and decided to quit my job, pack my bags, and got ready to leave the social and economic pressures of adulthood behind as I embarked on a 3 month adventure around India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The Baby Boomers reading this article might question at this point, “why”? Why was I leaving a perfectly good job in the U.K. when I should be thinking about my uncertain future, and what does this have to do with plastic waste? Bear with me.
Travelling for me was never about soul searching, or burying my head in the sand. It was about adventure and exploration and having no regrets when I’m old and looking back at what could have been. I was excited to see countries I’d been lusting after on Instagram and feel the exhilaration of being spontaneous and carefree whilst being surrounded by beautiful scenery and dazzling new cultures.
And for the most part, this was the case. I was in awe of so many of the places we travelled through and ticked off tonnes of bucket list experiences like swimming with turtles and learning to dive. And while the countries we travelled through varied in landscape and diversity, one thing remained constant and acted as a sad reminder of the real world we live in: Plastic. Everywhere.
A large percentage of the beaches we visited were littered with a varying degree of plastic waste, ranging from a bottle here or there to a whole carpet stretching across the sand. It was positive to see that on some beaches there were efforts to clean up the shorelines but on our last evening in Bali while walking along Jimbaran Beach, we came across a truly upsetting scene.
At one end of the beach, away from the 5* resorts was a thick layer of plastic waste running at least a kilometre along the curve of the bay. There wasn’t a single patch of sand visible between the sea and where the line of local restaurant tables and chairs began.
Despite this despicable view, we were amazed to see these seats were still taken up by hordes of tourists eating freshly BBQ’d fish (coming from that same polluted ocean) while looking out over the quite literal sea of plastic, or else clearing an area and posing for a romantic sunset photograph.
As we watched couples carefully cropping out the problem lying at their feet, I couldn’t help but think, how does nobody care? How are people eating their meals 6 ft away from this mess and not feel responsible in some way? How can we ignore this anymore?
Plastic waste and climate change are no longer something that might happen some time in the future. They’re happening right now, all over the world. Documentaries such at Blue Planet II and Netflix’s “A Plastic Ocean” and “Before the Flood” make for an uncomfortable viewing but outline the severity of the issues at hand. The ones that are shaping the future of our eco-system and the environment and even health of our children.
It is estimated that each year 8 million tons of plastic find their way into the sea from our rivers, where they either float or settle on the bottom of the ocean. Over time these plastics of all shapes and sizes are broken up into up to 236,000 tonnes of microplastics carrying toxic chemicals make their way into the food chains marine life.
Fish can choke or starve. Animals such as turtles can be killed for mistaking plastic for jelly fish, or else have issues with buoyancy or breathing if the plastic is swallowed or stuck. Birds have equal difficulty in identifying plastic from prey and in some harrowing footage of “A Plastic Ocean”, the team cut open the stomach of a Shearwater who had died as a result of consuming over 200 pieces of plastic found inside it.
By 2050, scientists believe that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. A recent study found that 700 species of marine wildlife are threatened by the presence of plastic in their environment, increasing the risk of extinction. New research has even shown that nearly all bottled water that we drink contains an average of 10 plastic particles per litre which could have potentially harmful effects.
There’s no denying that the future seems bleak but it was a surprise to me to discover that in a recent millennials survey by Deloitte, the young participants rated this problem as the least concerning when compared to categories including Economy, Crime and Healthcare. I blame Brexit…
It would be all too easy to sink into a pit of depression as a millennial dreaming of what the world our children grow up in might look like. I mean, plastic is in nearly all of our day-to-day necessities ranging from our toothbrushes and makeup to our morning smoothie cup and lunch packaging. Plastic’s best and worst quality is that it’s durable, that is, it’s indestructible. So what is the world doing about it?
Thankfully, in the last few years people have been lobbying for change and countries around the world have begun pledging to be plastic free. The U.K.’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, recently vowed to eliminate plastic waste by 2042, while in December 2017, signed up to a United Nations resolution to help stop this pollution. Rwanda has even banned the use of plastic bags entirely.
Meanwhile Germany are ahead of the recycling game having introduced an Act in the 1990s that makes manufacturers and distributors are responsible for the packaging they make and the disposal of it. Not only this but plastic deposit recycling schemes have been put in place across the country and many others have followed suit. This “Return and Earn” scheme incentivises people to collect and recycle plastic water bottles at these depositories in return for cash. These machines are even able to scan the barcodes of bottles to identify what kind of plastic it is made from and which retailer it should be sent to!
Delivery companies such as Just Eat will soon be offering an ‘opt-out’ of plastic cutlery with their service and social media campaigns such as #TheLastStraw have been flooding the social sphere to encourage the elimination of single use plastic and straws in hospitality and beyond.
Across countries surrounded by beaches, local councils and charity groups organise beach clean ups on a particular date to help come together as a community to take action on the growing problem. In some developing countries, initiatives like The Plastic Bank which started in Haiti, have gone a step further and are working to tackle poverty by making plastic waste a currency. People working with Plastic Bank can exchange plastic they find on beaches for solar battery charge, sustainable cooking equipment or money.
All around the world, businesses are starting to reap the benefits of recycled plastic by turning it into new products ranging from clothes, 3D printing and to create a new source of renewable energy.
But it’s not enough to point the finger anymore and hope that someone else cleans up this mess. We’re all guilty of habits like eating from single use plastic on the go or else forgetting what goes in which bin and is it even a big deal if you get it wrong?
The answer is yes. More often than not, that old lasagne dish that you had finished but not completely cleaned the leftovers from will contaminate that load of recycling and it will all end up as landfill, making the opportunity to recycle somewhat pointless.
There are a few small changes and things that we, as individuals, can do to start claiming back control of our future:
- Educate ourselves – clue ourselves up on the catastrophic impact of plastic pollution and use this to encourage others to think differently about their habits too
- Recycle responsibly – find out what you can and can’t recycle from your local council’s website and make an effort to do it properly
- Hold on to plastic rubbish – rather than dispose of it in a street bin, save it until you get home and can recycle
- Avoid single use plastics – refuse plastic straws and cutlery at bars and restaurants, and invest in some longer use lunch boxes for storing food
- Foil not plastic – use aluminium foil rather than cling film to cover food
- Buy in bulk – when you’re at the supermarket, buy a larger serving of food stored in a plastic container to reduce waste
- Lobby for change – noone wants to be that person, but by speaking to managers of a store or restaurant and suggesting positive changes, you could make all the difference
- Get involved – join in with a beach clean up near you and help raise awareness of initiatives like Global Recycling Day (18th March) which aims to unite people across the world with events hosted in cities including London, Washington DC, Sao Paulo, Paris, Sydney and more
It was scary to see first hand the result of years of irresponsible disposal of waste washed up on the shores of Bali and beyond, but it was also the wake up call I needed.
I am no saint when it comes to being eco-friendly, in fact some may argue that I have no right to be preaching about saving the planet.
But the state of the world’s future is my right. It is everyone’s right and if we all pledge to do a little bit better, I’m hopeful that we can change it for the better. For the sake of the planet and for the sake of millennials living in a plastic world.
For more information about Global Recycling Day, please visit https://www.globalrecyclingday.com/ and get involved on social media using the hashtag #globalrecyclingday