Stemming The Plastic Tide: Progress Made in 2018

Shawn Rykaczewski

Every day I see a new article about how our plastic use has become dangerously out of hand. So it’s easy to feel as though we’re powerless to stem the flood of plastics polluting our oceans. However, all hope is not lost! There are people and organisations working tirelessly to stop it. Here are a couple of success stories from 2018 that you may have missed.

Plastic Free July

Plastic Free Foundation took to social media to issue us a challenge; to go an entire month without using single-use plastics. Thousands of people accepted, including myself. Participants shared their tips and tricks for avoiding plastics, and alternatives they found useful. By the end of the month, I realised just how difficult avoiding plastics can be in our everyday lives, but it’s always within our power to refuse plastic or find a plastic-free alternative (with a little leg work). I can’t say I ended my Plastic Free July with a perfect track record, but I can say I greatly reduced my plastic consumption, which has had lasting effects on my relationship with plastics in my day to day life. The lessons learnt from plastic free July can be carried on, long after the month has ended. Don’t wait until July to give it a go, why not start today?

The Attenborough effect

The release of Blue Planet II and Our Planet, starring Sir David Attenborough, raised considerable awareness, pushing the plastic agenda into the mainstream media. Dramatic shots of albatross chicks being fed plastic, whales trying to eat it, and dolphins exposing their calves to pollutants through their milk, shocked viewers into action. A report by GlobalWebIndex on sustainable packing in the UK and US found that 53% of respondents (3,833) said that in the last 12 months, they have reduced the amount of plastic they use. Another report found 88% of people who the final episode of Blue Planet II have changed their behaviour since. And it doesn’t stop there. The Attenborough effect has snowballed into a mass movement of people, organisations, and governments, to being tackling this issue.

The United States passes the Save Our Seas Act

Early last October, President Trump signed the Save Our Seas Act into law. Not only does this bipartisan act fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program, but it also helps to prevent marine pollution through removal, prevention, research, regional coordination, and emergency response. And the Save Our Seas Act also allows the US government to put political pressure on the top polluting countries.

Drowning in Plastic

In October, the BBC shocked us all with the documentary Drowning in Plastic. The majority of the plastic in the ocean comes from developing countries that lack the infrastructure to properly dispose of their rubbish (and the rubbish we send over in shiploads!). Unfortunately, this means much of it ends up in waterways and eventually the ocean. The documentary followed Liz Bonnin, a Biochemist and Wildlife Biologist, as she showed us first hand what the 8 million tonnes of plastics dumped into the ocean each year looks like, and the awful effects it’s having on the planet. Bonnin highlighted the work of researchers studying plastic ingestion in seabirds, often leading to the death of juvenile birds, and plastics that carry bacteria like Vibrio to coral reefs, potentially infecting the corals with black band disease. While that may be upsetting for many of us to hear, she also exposed us to people that are trying to fight back against the plastic plague we’ve invented for ourselves.

Drowning in plastic! The high tide line on a remote island in Indonesia is littered with single use plastics. Photo: Shawn Rykaczewski

Drowning in plastic! The high tide line on a remote island in Indonesia is littered with single use plastics. Photo: Shawn Rykaczewski

Plastic wins Word and Statistic of the Year

Once again bringing plastic in the public eye, the term ‘single-use’ was named word of the year in 2018, after a significant rise in use since 2013. The statistic of the year; 90.5%, the estimated amount of plastic waste ever made that has never been recycled; is sobering, and shed light on the vast scale of the challenge we are now facing.

No straw November

Instead of not shaving facial hair, in 2018 November became the month of no straws. The idea came from 16-year-old high school student Shelby O’Neil from Junior Ocean Guardians. Her campaigning led to the California Coastal Commission declaring November as No Straw November. They received over 9,000 online pledges, and almost 20,000 single-use plastic straws refused in November 2017. Following on from this success, the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (USA) started a No Straw November campaign, with the goal of getting 500 businesses to commit to only serving plastic straws on request. The ACP have already prevented the use of 5 MILLION straws, and have big plans to create a global coalition of 200 aquariums committed to reducing plastic.

New Plastics Economy Global Commitment

20% of the plastic packaging produced around the world is from just 250 organisations, including Coca-Cola, H&M, Unilever, PespsiCo, L'Oreal, and Nestle. These global polluters have banded together and formed an initiative called the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations. Their goal is to create a circular plastic economy where plastic items will be redesigned so that they can be reused, repurposed, or recycled, with the aim of making plastic as recyclable as other materials (glass, paper, aluminium). To be successful it will require considerable change throughout the plastic value chain from producers to brands, retailers, and recycling facilities.

A new plastic economy would make products that are durable, and easily recyclable. Photo: Pixabay

A new plastic economy would make products that are durable, and easily recyclable. Photo: Pixabay

The first plastic free flight

Hi Fly led the way in plastic-free flights, with their first departure on boxing day, replacing cups, spoons, sick bags, dishes, butter pots, soft drinks bottles and toothbrushes with alternatives made of bamboo, paper and compostable materials. They aim to be the first plastic free airline by the end of 2019, with Etihad following close on their heels (who introduced edible cups), and other companies such as Ryanair pledging to reduce their plastic use. These simple changes can eliminate around 50 kg of single-use plastic per flight, and with air travel on the rise, this is definitely a positive step in the right direction.

Plastic Bans

There has been a tidal wave of single-use plastic bans in cities, countries, at festivals, and across the entire EU. Just a handful of examples are below:

While much of the news headlines focus on doom and gloom, remember that there’s brilliant people in this world doing fantastic work, trying to raise awareness and solve the plastic problem facing our oceans. And you can do your part too. Look out for more articles this month with useful hints and tips to help you turn the tide on plastic.

This month, The Marine Diaries will be sharing our knowledge on plastic pollution to help educate the public about the impact of our actions on marine life, in the hope of promoting change. Together we can fight plastic.

Want to become part of a community striving to reduce their plastic use? Join our Facebook group