For the past decade or so, I’ve been at war with coconuts. Not all coconuts, you understand, just those that are shrink-wrapped in plastic. I started taking on retailers in my native Britain on this issue around 2005. After tears and excuses (theirs not mine) that included the fact that unwrapped coconuts constituted a health and safety nightmare ― small children might, they claimed, inhale the fibrous hair of the natural shell ― there were concessions. I moved on, confident that this would be sorted.
How wrong I was. I returned, almost full time, to the plastic pandemic in January 2018. Things were much worse, even the coconuts. In my local stores, they are now not only shrink-wrapped but come on their own plastic stand, with a plastic ring pull and are marketed as “genuine coconuts.” Oh, my God.
But, of course, the plastic pandemic moves far beyond coconuts or any other stubbornly wrapped consumable. We’re becoming familiar with the eye-popping statistics. A garbage truck worth of plastic empties into the ocean every minute. Worldwide, humankind produces over 300 million tons of plastic each year, and this is increasing. Researchers believe as many as 51 trillion fragments of plastic ― known as microplastic (characterized as pieces under 5 mm) ― are polluting waterways and marine environments.
The contours of catastrophe, of course, are never easy to define, and there is much we still don’t understand. Plastic has been detected throughout our own food chain, now invading honey, beer and table salt. Studies show that microplastics can act as vectors transporting some of the most persistent toxic chemicals ever produced, and long ago banned on land. But we can say this: If we do nothing to slow down our consumption of plastic by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.
Let’s be clear. Nobody feels good about this and everybody wants change. But how?
Scientific researchers recently announced a breakthrough, accidentally accelerating the way enzymes in bacteria found on a Japanese trash heap could eat through plastic. The media responded in its typically restrained way, suggesting the plastic pandemic is all but beaten. This is not the case. It will be many years before enzymes can be deployed on to the famous five oceanic gyres that hold the lion’s share of plastic, if at all.
Similarly, we’ve been quick to seize on the opportunities offered by bioplastics to have our cake and eat it too. If we can stop making plastic from hydrocarbons and make it from plant matter, then we can also trigger it to degrade when we want. (This is the really tricky bit.) There is important research going on around bioplastics, and a number of institutions are determined to become the Tesla of plastics. But even chief proponents will tell you that their science has been thrust into the spotlight too early as we clamor for solutions. The truth is that we can’t swap out the material that sustains an unsustainable disposable culture and replace it with one that miraculously composts. We need to stop the disposable culture.
Recycling offers another comforting have-cake-and-eat-it-style narrative. But at the beginning of this year, China shut its doors to low-grade plastic waste, causing a massive headache for industrialized economies.
For many years we’d been ferrying our plastic empties to China without apparently planning for the day when China would tire of this arrangement (and associated air pollution). When a door slams shut, another famously opens full of opportunity. This may indeed be the case. The principles of a circular economy, where plastic waste would be valued as a resource and continually recycled, have made serious inroads. Multinational companies such as Unilever have adopted circular economy strategies. Investment is finally going into chemical recycling, which can take plastic waste back to oil.
But investment is also flooding into new fossil fuel-powered plastic production. Reports suggest more than $180 billion has been invested in new plastic manufacturing in the U.S. since 2010 and that new plants will continue to pop up as a result of the shale gas boom. It is primarily destined for our homes, in the form of more plastic packaging and stuff.
Frightening, yes, but also a neat proposition.
It means we needn’t wait for plastic-chopping enzymes to be deployed or miraculous recycling solutions or even for our trash to be blasted into space. It means we must become the front line of resistance. Given the plastic that we plow through on a weekly basis (likely 20-50 plastic items every week that we could easily do without, or swap with a reusable or more easily recyclable alternative, according to my research), we can make a significant dent in our own plastic footprint almost immediately. All you need is a strategy.
That’s why I’ve distilled 10 years of plastic worrying, coconut rampages and dumpster diving into my new book, Turning the Tide on Plastic. My message is that the change starts with you: your grocery shop, your office behavior, your kids’ summer camp. And once you have a grip on the flow of plastic in your life (which by the way is a truly empowering thing) you can plug into the global movement for change. To the traditional mantra of the 3Rs ― reduce, reuse and recycle ― I’ve added five more directives: record, replace, refuse, refill and rethink. My strategy makes recycling the last resort.
This is about clear-eyed work and focus. We are saying no as consumers, because we’re not just consumers. We’re citizens with agency. Even tiny tots. ’“You can’t take away glitter,” I was warned. “My 4-year-old won’t stand for it.”
I enjoyed this challenge. Glitter is a ready-made microplastic (like microbeads). When washed down drains, it feeds straight into water courses ― from the fairy wands of babes into the bellies of sea creatures. So I tested my strategy on glitter with my 4-year-old niece. It turned out there was one thing she liked more than glitter, and that was penguins. We chatted about penguins, what they eat and the menace of plastic. She quickly came to the conclusion (on her own) that if the glitter wasn’t certifiably biodegradable it wasn’t coming to her party.
The road to turning the tide is complex, yes, but in some ways, it’s also child’s play.