The plastic problem

Plastic is choking our oceans, but is the problem deeper than we think?

Written by: Sarah Annabel Fischel

Art by: Susan Park

The female hawksbill turtle slowly makes her way out of the sea, the light of the moon reflecting off the still water. She is here to lay her eggs on the beach, the same beach on which she was born. We are on a tiny remote island in Malaysia at a marine conservation project and it is breathtaking to see such a graceful-looking being drawn here by the mysterious biological patterns of nature. But something is wrong. As she pulls herself up the sand, she slips back. She can’t get a hold. This is because plastic lines the shore – fishing nets, plastic bottles, food containers and wrappers, old flip flops, shampoo bottles, nappies, bags marked with the skull and crossbones of toxic waste.

A large part of our work at the project was beach clean-ups. Most mornings we would wake up to a beach covered in a staggering amount of rubbish, mostly plastic, washed ashore from the mainland, often along with dead turtles and fish.

It is quite literally mind-boggling to comprehend the amount of plastic now in the ocean. It has been estimated that about eight million tonnes are dumped each year, which is equivalent to five grocery bags per foot of coastline globally. It seems as though, galvanised by BBC’s Blue Planet, we are starting to sit up and take notice – of poisoned and strangled animals and birds, huge floating garbage patches, or news that microplastics have been found in the water we drink, in 90% of table salt, in seafood, and even now in our own guts. Meanwhile, the health impacts of plastic have been widely reported, including links to cancer and reproductive problems. We use plastic products once and they will outlive us, slowly poisoning all they come into contact with.

As consumers, we are encouraged to tackle this problem by reducing plastic use, buying reusable water bottles and cups, avoiding straws and packaged vegetables. This is all encouraging and helpful, but is it actually tackling the larger issue?

As George Monbiot has pointed out, simply swapping one material for another, buying a reusable cup rather than using a disposable cup, is not going to solve the plastic problem. In fact, it dupes us into believing we can carry on as usual and that we are ‘making a difference’ when very little has actually changed.

Furthermore, as Naomi Klein has argued, our capitalist society only functions through continually manipulating us to spend and consume more resources, and capitalism actually thrives on disasters. The threat of danger simply opens up a new market niche. In this case the (valid) hype around plastic has created a market for attractive reusable water bottles, cups, and metal straws. However, companies are making these goods for a profit, not to save the world. The use of alternatives to plastic such as glass and stainless steel may not even be more environmentally friendly overall because of their higher weight for transportation and their production methods.

In fact, the largest proportion of plastic in the ocean does not come from straws or household waste, but instead from discarded fishing nets (46%). A far more effective way to approach the plastic problem would therefore be to reduce levels of fish consumption, just as the most effective way to approach the impending carnage that is the climate breakdown predicted by the IPCC is to reduce levels of animal product consumption.

Of course it is easy to buy a reusable cup and avoid plastic straws, but less easy to do what is actually needed – to overhaul our lifestyle, change our eating habits profoundly and to buy less, to live a more simple, less selfish life. We shouldn’t see the plastic problem as one that is singular and therefore easily fixable, but one that is interlinked to all others and our fundamental attitude to the world around us. From mining the ground for materials for our smartphones, to polluting rivers for our clothes, to destroying rainforests for palm oil for cosmetics, the list of destruction is endless in our quest for a continual upgrade of our belongings and even ourselves as we move through life bombarded by advertising.

Plastic waste is simply a visible manifestation of a deeper structural and psychological attitude we have towards our planet. Namely that we can constantly exploit it for resources, for more new belongings, while discarding the old. However our rubbish, and much of our recycling, ends up in land waste, polluting the lands of those who are most marginalised and making them horribly ill; but out of sight, out of mind.

We have forgotten that there is no separation between us and our environment – the earth, the oceans, the water. Our skin is porous, we breathe in the polluted air, we are 50-65% water. Without a healthy environment, we can never be healthy. The environmental crisis we are experiencing is also a humanitarian one. It is complex with no easy solution. Going plastic free is a great start, but it is just the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg.

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