After years of absent-mindedly stuffing 5p Sainsbury’s bags in the kitchen drawer, feeling the lame thrill of plonking your water bottle on the green side of the bin and scratching your head over whether to put a container that still has sauce in it in the recycling, it’s time to wake up to the colossal and terrifying effects of plastic pollution.
From the United Nations Environment programme switching up its strategy to reduce plastic waste, to petitions demanding supermarkets stop covering fruit in it, to Brita’s reusable water bottle campaigns, adidas’ recycled ocean plastic trainers, Borough Market’s new water fountains and the massive plastic whale sculpture on Tower Bridge, the undissolvable substance is the anti-trend of 2017.
The entire world is wrapped in the stuff: everything in your fridge, in your bathroom, in your handbag and on your desk is plastic. Even YOU are plastic! “Right now we are breathing plastic, eating plastic,” Cyrill Gutsch, founder and CEO of Parley for the Oceans – a non-profit organisation focused on marine pollution – tells me over the phone. “You barely find salt that has no plastic traces.”
So what’s the problem? Well, to begin with, plastic takes a minimum of 450 years to break down once it reaches the sea and a maximum of: forever. Plastic, even if it's ground down into tiny pieces, doesn’t dissolve, so the oceans are already full of it and being lumped with a further eight million tonnes a year. By 2050, it's estimated that there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.
The effect? Firstly, it’s destroying the ecosystems of our planet. Plankton, the smallest creatures in the sea, at the bottom of the food chain, are eating microplastics (ground-down plastic and things like microbeads from face washes and exfoliators, which go down your plughole and pretty much straight into the sea). Then bigger fish are eating bigger pieces, as well as eating the plankton, and plastic is rapidly working its way up the food chain. And remember who sits comfortably at the top of the food chain? Us.
“Environmentalists have warned us for a long time of apocalyptic scenarios to come if we don’t change the way we’re living on this planet,” warns Cyrill. “I would say, now, that the time for these kinds of warnings is over because it is the reality now that our oceans are sick and the ecosystems are about to be totally destroyed. We are seeing the diminishment of fish and it affects so many of the big species – the shark, the tuna, the dolphins, they are all heading for extinction. So many animals are disappearing and once they’re extinct, they’re gone, we can’t bring them back.”
The solution? Hm, we’re not quite there yet, but the first step for us mere consumers is to opt out of single-use plastic, which, if your head’s still in the kitchen drawer stuffing bags, refers to water bottles, straws, plastic bags, tampon applicators – anything you use once and throw away.
Many of the current anti-plastic campaigns focus on plastic bottles because 38.5 million are bought every day in the UK and just 70k of these are effectively recycled, while 16m get put into landfill, which, according to Cyrill, invariably means they end up in the sea: “It’s gravity that makes it do so.”
The good news is that the effect individual consumers can have is tangible. Sanjay Mitra, corporate partnerships manager at the Marine Conservation Society told us that since shoppers started paying 5p for plastic bags in the supermarket, they’ve seen a “22% drop in carrier bags washed up on the beach” – data they’ve collected over the last four years at their annual Great British Beach Clean, which you can volunteer at. Similarly, Sanjay noted that the recent ban on microbeads in the UK is already having a positive effect. The point being, if individual consumers opt out, sign the petitions and take a stand, then the big corporations and the government will be forced to make changes like the plastic bag fee and the microbead ban, which we know are working.
As trendsetters, the fashion world is standing to attention, too. British designer Henry Holland recently collaborated with Brita on a T-shirt line made from recycled plastic water bottles and salvaged cotton (incidentally it’s the softest T-shirt we own) printed with the slogan “single use plastic is never fantastic”. Henry told us that another step he’s taken as an individual and as a leader of a business is to get rid of the plastic water cooler in the office, replacing it with a good old-fashioned tap and glassware – something we can all demand from our office managers today.
“We should not question whether it [opting out of single-use plastic as an individual] is making enough impact,” says Cyrill, “because it’s not only the 10 straws that I don’t use in a week, it’s not only the plastic bag that I skipped that day, it’s the communication, because you never know who’s next to you, it might be the owner of a huge plastic plant who needed this one personal experience to see that the person in front of him in the coffee line opts out of single-use plastic.”
This actually happened to Cyrill; he gave a speech at an exhibition in Marseille, and there happened to be a politician in the audience. “He went on to win the youth vote in the election and he made plastic pollution a big part of his campaign and he was able to pass so many rules about plastic use, it was amazing to see! I mean, you never know what you can do! It’s really about encouraging others, being a bit demanding and a bit nagging and a bit annoying. If you go every day to your little coffee shop and you ask them for a paper cup instead of a plastic cup or you ask them to fill up your own cup that you brought with you, in the beginning they laugh at you, but then suddenly the guy behind the counter starts coming with his own cup and suddenly he reaches 100 people and suddenly the shop changes their policy on plastic. Be an example and be outspoken, not aggressive, but an inspiration for others.”
With his organisation, Parley for the Oceans, Cyrill has come up with a new strategy, which the United Nations Environment has adopted, replacing their previous “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan with Cyrill’s: “avoid, intercept, redesign” (AIR).
‘Avoid’ sounds simple, but is ridiculously hard. Trying not to buy plastic bottles, not to use straws and asking your boss to get rid of the plastic water cooler is one thing, but trying to avoid plastic altogether is practically impossible, as Guardian journalist Nicola Davis found out when she recently attempted to go entirely plastic-free for a week. She ended up with a pig hair toothbrush, a solid bar of shampoo and a lot less time due to lengthy plastic-free-produce expeditions.
An advocate for sociopolitical and environmental issues, Lily Cole is also involved in the Brita campaign to opt out of single use plastic, but admits it's a tough journey. "I’ve gone in and out of phases of saying no to single use plastic", she told us, "I’ve already gone through a few different reusable plastic bottles that I’ll carry around for a few weeks, but of course, sometimes I forget, or it gets lost, and I go back to using too much single use plastic. Over the last few weeks I've committed 100% to opting out of single use but as a consequence I’ve noticed how much plastic I’m still using in other products – you know, you look down and find that you’re using a disposable spoon, or fork."
So, avoidance is difficult, but awareness and good intentions will at least set you on the right path.
‘Intercept’ means recycling. Though, at this point, recycling isn’t a solution, it’s damage control. “Recycling is a band aid,” says Cyrill, “you recycle what you’ve already made, but you have to avoid making more. We have been living under the illusion that things are taken care of, but the truth is, this is too big of a problem, too big of a failure to be managed now. It’s out of control.”
The last word in Cyrill’s AIR strategy is ‘redesign’, which refers to the fact that there is currently no alternative material to plastic, so we need to invent a new one. “This is truly a big business opportunity for manufacturers and vendors,” Cyrill says, “if they believe there is an end for plastic coming. And on the other hand, we have to create a mass awareness, create enough noise to establish an atmosphere where innovation gets rewarded with business.”
In his speech at the 2016 Accounting For Sustainability Annual Summit, Prince Charles celebrated the collaboration between Parley for the Oceans and the sports brand adidas, saying: “An excellent example is the collaboration between adidas and Parley for the Oceans, an environmental group that raises awareness of marine pollution, to produce training shoes made from recycled waste. One million pairs will be made using plastic taken from the waters around the Maldives, with each pair containing 11 plastic bottles. […] Adidas now plan to phase out virgin plastics in other products and replace it with recycled plastic – clearly a bold ambition.” Prince Charles finished by asking why we don’t have a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, “as Sweden has had for the past 20 years as well as Germany for the past 12 years and Belgium, [so we can] eliminate the problem before it enters the oceans?”
Several countries around the world have implemented this deposit return system, which the Marine Conservation Society is campaigning to introduce in the UK. “The idea is that when you buy plastic bottles, there’s a deposit that goes with it,” explains Sanjay, “and in order to get that deposit back, you take back the plastic bottle to what we call a reverse vending machine – you just put the bottle back and you get a voucher back or money back. Then they get recycled efficiently.” This system, while ‘novel’ to us Westerners, is in practice in the countries mentioned above and even in poorer countries like Egypt, where you still have to stand and drink your glass bottle of Coca-Cola on the street, then hand it right back so they can wash and refill. And Argentina, where you pay a deposit for your beer bottles at the corner shop and get it back when you return them.
In 2013, London-based sustainable startup Skipping Rocks Lab created a bubble that holds water within an edible membrane made from seaweed. So you drink the water and then either eat the bubble it came in or toss it in the bin, comfortable in the knowledge that it will biodegrade in 4-6 weeks – the same time it takes a piece of fruit to biodegrade, according to designboom. Skipping Rocks Lab hopes its design will be used for all liquids someday, from soft drinks to toiletries.
“In the perfect world, we would create materials as we see them in nature,” says Cyrill. “Look at the banana skin, look at the coconut shell, the skin of a melon or an orange, or a peach or a plum or an apple, these are extremely high tech materials! We feel so proud when we invent things like plastic and then we totally ignore the fact that nature has been so much better and has been showing us alternatives every day!”
So while the sustainable startups are dreaming up the new plastic, the least we can do is opt out of single-use plastic by buying a reusable bottle, asking for your coffee in a paper cup with no plastic lid, buying the tampons without the applicators, taking the same 5p bag to Sainsbury’s every time, and just starting to cause the slight inconvenience of opting out wherever you can in your life. And eat less fish, says Cyrill, because we need them. Because, as he concludes, “Without healthy oceans, without the chemistry, the air, the oxygen that is being generated by the sea, humans cannot live on this planet.”