The Plastic Pollution Problem: How Society Can Shift To Be Plastic-Free
Last year, I spoke at a UN event about sustainable production and consumption that was focused on plastic waste in our oceans.
While I was there, I listened to a representative from the Maldives share what the country is doing to combat plastic pollution. Fighting against plastic straws in restaurants, banning single-use plastic bags, recycling plastic into trinkets for tourists, and issuing reusable water bottles to school children—it’s all part of their effort to curb plastic waste.
The Maldives are a prime example of a culture that actually feels the impact of plastic pollution. In the U.S., we’ve been exporting our plastic to Asia for years, and we tend to feel like we’re doing our part when we remember to throw a plastic bottle in a blue bin.
But China isn’t taking our recycling anymore. And with 91% of plastic going to waste, finding a solution to this pollution problem won’t be easy. It’s going to take a combination of behavioral change, simplified supply chains, and government and regulatory support.
Here’s how we can start tackling it, and what we’ll need to work toward in the long-run:
Reducing plastics starts with changing consumers’ behaviors and mindsets.
When it comes to plastic use, there’s one largely intractable problem at the moment—our society runs on oil.
Most people only think of oil in the context of fueling transportation, but petroleum is also used to create plastics and synthetic materials. Take clothing, for example. Many of the synthetic fibers we wear today—like polyester or acrylic—are actually made from plastic. And unfortunately, minuscule amounts of plastic leach into our water every time those clothes are washed.
On top of that, single-use plastic is everywhere in food packaging. Try to leave the grocery store without any plastic in your cart next time, and you’ll understand how ingrained the use of plastic is in our lives. That’s why the immediate, ground-level solutions are based on changing consumer behavior.
In order to reduce plastic pollution, we have to reduce our use of plastic products.
People can start by shopping at farmer’s markets, buying durable, reusable bags and water bottles, and purchasing long-lasting clothing instead of the cheaper, synthetic alternatives.
In the long-run, companies will need to step up and assist consumers in following through on their good intentions. Because sometimes, there really is no non-plastic packaging option at the grocery store. People are essentially forced to purchase certain foods in single-use plastic.
There has been a handful of encouraging signals from brands, like Unilever’s reusable subscription program—a sustainable throwback to the days of the milkman. But we still have a long way to go, particularly when it comes to our supply chains.
Once behaviors change, supply chains will shift to accommodate demand.
Today, global supply chains rely heavily on plastic to transport materials around the world. We think nothing of tearing open a package that was manufactured across an ocean and tossing it into the trash.
But if consumer demand begins to change, it will have an effect on global supply chains. If demand becomes localized—think farmers markets or food grown in vertical farms—companies will have to respond, which will potentially begin the movement away from supply chains that rely heavily on plastics.
To help with this transition, businesses can begin by collecting data on how much plastic is used in their supply chains and working with vendors who are committed to being plastic-free. On the waste-reduction side, companies like CleanApp are already educating the tech industry about the financial benefits of trash and hazard reporting.
Right now, however, there just aren’t incentives for companies to stop using plastic. In fact, it’s very much the opposite—plastic is economical. So over the long run, brands, governments, and consumers need to align interests, creating incentives for manufacturers to use bioplastics and alternative packaging that isn’t petroleum-based.
None of these shifts will happen without policies and regulations to incentives consumers and companies.
In the Maldives, the government is committed to educating children about ocean ecosystems and the harmful impacts plastics have on them. Children go snorkeling and scuba diving to see first-hand what needs to be protected—and the damage that plastic can cause.
But countries that are less-immediately impacted by plastic waste need to take action, as well. Governments have a responsibility to help create that alignment of incentives I mentioned earlier.
To their credit, many are. The European Union recently banned the use of many single-use plastics, and as of 2018, 127 countries had some type of policy in place regulating plastic bags.
For now, everyone can help by implementing and supporting local regulations to ban plastic and incentivize people not use it. In the long-run, people, brands, and governments need to continue educating the public about the damage that plastic causes and continue working with companies to shift toward shortened supply chains and a more localized economy.