In issue 002 of One Aware magazine, we discuss the history of plastic and its impact in our world in the article "Plastic, a Beauty in Disguise". It is not an article in defense of plastic, but rather calling on all of us to look at plastic as a resource instead of waste. An idea which I've followed up on in a previous blog post, "It's not Waste until it's Wasted".
As I'm writing today, on the 10th of June, we've celebrated World Environment Day 2018 and World Oceans Day 2018, both of which were themed Beat Plastic Pollution. I've seen an incredible amount of posts calling on people to refuse what they cannot re-use, to eliminate the senseless waste of single use plastics. It was also the first time when an organized movement of people campaigned against plastic straws - using #nostraws and #healourworld. I wrote about the subject myself on our Instagram account.
Yet today, I wonder if something went wrong.
Is the Pass on Plastic items campaign doing its thing?
Looking at the people within our audience who have responded to our post yesterday, and similar past posts, I can't help but notice that for the most part they are the ones already living sustainably. They reply to our Insta story calling for No Plastic Straws telling me how long it's been since they last used one, or comment with the High-Five emoji to a zero waste post.
Yet, it is hard to measure how much impact we're having when each time I walk out the door I see people carrying juices, iced coffees and milkshakes in disposable plastic cups and straws. In my Instagram and Facebook feeds I cannot escape the posts calling on us to make more sustainable choices, yet I wonder if that is because their algorithms are programmed to show me more of what I clearly have an interest on.
Are we getting the message across to the people who need it the most? Or are we only communicating to a narrow group of users who already see the world in the same way as us, who are already working to lessen their impact?
The campaign launched by the UN for World Environment Day 2018 to Beat Plastic Pollution, includes a video of "Tag, you're it!" showing a number of famous people pledging to banish from their lives a type of plastic products each. And I am sure this campaign brought the issue to the attention of many people who aren't seeing the social media posts of pages like ours, which is a massive positive. But does it give off the impression that this is a large movement, and therefore other people are already tackling the problem? I don't personally have an answer, but I do fear what will happen if people continue to think "it's okay for me to just go on with life as usual, because other people who have more time and money are fighting plastic pollution. They have more access/reach/power than me, so I'll just leave this for them to deal with."
Is it okay?
In reality, we need everyone to be making their best effort. A select group of celebrities or a focused yet relatively small percentage of the population simply won't do.
I feel it is necessary to bring up some studies showing that the more we are exposed to an idea, the more likely we are to be thinking of it and want to engage with it. In the book 'Contagious', Jonah Berger writes about the power of triggers: stimuli that prompts people to think of related things. For example, in mid-1997 the candy company Mars experienced an unexpected surge in sales - which they found surprising because they had not changed their marketing campaign or budget, nor did they have any sales taking place. Their spike in sales happened thanks to NASA's Pathfinder mission, which was designed to collect samples of the atmosphere, climate and soil from planet Mars. In an experiment mentioned in the same chapter of the book, researchers played music from different countries at supermarkets, and found out that playing French music resulted in higher sales of French wine, while German music increased the sales of beer and German wine.
Speaking for myself, each time I see this image, I honestly crave a frappuccino... Of course I feel bad for the whales, and it's not as if I'm about to give in and walk into a coffee shop without my trusted reusable cup - but not having seen sea animals in pain first hand, the craving for an ice cold sugary drink is somewhat what my mind clings to. And I'm guessing I'm not the only one, and that other people will show less restraint. We're incredibly good at lying to ourselves and saying "Oh, go on, it's just this once!".
Such is the power of something like an emoji, and why I am absolutely backing this campaign to Pass on Plastic Emoji.
I honestly believe that by constantly showing people the very plastic items we are trying to get them to refuse, we're actually making them think more often about those items and, quite possibly, how much they enjoy the experience of consuming such products. By repeatedly writing the word Plastic, I might be feeding into your idea of how prevalent it is, instead of allowing your mind to focus on the alternatives. And those alternatives are far more necessary than you might realize, as what we've perceived as the solution for the past decade is far from it.
Plastic Pollution Solutions: what is happening?
For the longest time, we've regarded recycling as the solution to our waste problems. Governments ran campaigns about recycling, kids in school were taught how to recycle, we even sung praises about the companies who talked about recycling in their Corporate Social Responsibility pages.
Recycling is amazing!!! It is! Especially for materials such as glass and aluminum, which can be recycled again and again without loosing the properties we value them for, without us needing to mix them with virgin material to meet standards of quality. Recycling is also great for paper, though we tend to use quite a few chemicals to make white recycled paper, or otherwise downgrade it to be used as cardboard. And then it is a little less great when it comes to plastics in general, because there are over 50 types of plastics and they are hard to sort out at recycling plants.
While some polymers, such as polyethylene terephthalate - used for plastic bottles - are dense materials relatively easy to sort out and recycle; other plastics, such as polyethylene - which comes in different grades and is widely used in food packaging and as plastic film - is harder to sort out mechanically, making it more costly to recycle. Plastics which are easy to recycle are widely processed at local plants, but for the harder to recycle plastics there are far less facilities, which is why many countries (including the UK) have resorted to shipping a number of plastic items overseas to be recycled.
Up until recently, China was the main importer of household mixed recycling waste. Tonnes and tonnes of waste were shipped to China, from the developed countries of world to their favourite cheap labour manufacturer. Tonnes and tonnes of waste to be sorted and recycled and used to fabricate new products.
Unfortunately for all these countries, China has (quite literally) had enough - they have more than enough plastic waste being produced at home to continue taking in ours. Last year, China announced a ban on imports of waste for recycling, which went into effect earlier in 2018.
As a result, many nations (and the UK among them) are currently struggling to find a solution to what to do with their mixed recycling - so for the time being, it is sitting in warehouses, pilling up while people continue to consume and send their packaging to be recycled.
There has been talk of incinerating a lot of the waste that cannot be recycled locally, as a means of disposing of it without sending it to landfill.
Is this really the best we can do?
I don't believe it is.
Campaigns need to focus on showing reusables as part of a desirable lifestyle, instead of trying to guilt-trip viewers into changing their behaviour - because in the precise moment they start feeling guilty, they'll stop paying attention to the message and ignore everything that comes after.
We also need to put forward better uses for the plastic already in circulation, moving into a circular economy where none of it gets wasted or downgraded.
Better uses for our plastic
What else can we do with the plastic already in existence? We've made this point at the end of our One Aware issue 002 article, but we'll repeat it here for free: plastic is a long lasting material, and therefore we should be using it for long lasting products.
These are some examples of products that we fully believe are part of the solution to our plastic crisis:
The Furniture of Brodie Neil made from ocean pollution
The innovative use of hard to recycle plastics by sunglasses company w.r.yuma