It’s not new information all the world’s continents are connected by water; as a result, however, all civilizations across the globe also share responsibility in curbing the “mammoth problem” of plastic pollution threatening the environment.
“This issue is way bigger than us in the United States,” Charlie Plybon, Oregon policy manager with the Surfrider Foundation, said during a Listening to the Land lecture at Seaside Public Library on May 16.
Plybon’s presentation, “Plastic Pollution: Acting locally to curb a new world order in ocean pollution,” was the final lecture of the 2018 Listening to the Land series, presented by the Necanicum Watershed Council in partnership with the library.
While the current trends related to plastic pollution are worrisome, Plybon’s lecture was not about doom and gloom, but rather “a hope-and-change kind of presentation,” said Chrissy Smith, coordinator of the Friends of Cape Falcon Marine Reserve, a north coast-based volunteer organization.
The scope of the problem
Plybon, who has a degree in marine biology and is a member of the Oregon Ocean Policy Advisory Council, shared important statistics, giving listeners a glimpse of the magnitude of the plastic pollution problem.
According to a 2016 report called “The New Plastics Economy,” by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum, if plastic pollution continues being generated and entering the environment at its current rate, it may outweigh the total mass of fish in the world’s ocean by 2050. Such a presence of plastic has the power to change entire ecosystems and species, Plybon said.
Additionally, multiple studies suggest there are more than 2.25 trillion particles of plastic currently floating in the ocean, and fish off the west coast ingest more than 12,000 tons of plastic per year. Humans also ingest plastic microfibers, which were found in 83 percent of tap water samples collected from at least a dozen countries on five continents, according to a study commissioned by data journalism outlet Orb. For the United States, 94 percent of water samples were contaminated by plastic.
A brief history
How did this happen? Plybon shared insight into a cultural shift that transpired around the mid-21st century. In 1955, Life Magazine ran an article called “Throwaway Living” that celebrated the convenience of single-use products and disposable items. The consumerism mindset that began proliferating at the time can be summed up in a quote attributed to Victor Lebow, an economist and retail analyst: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption.”
“We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate,” Lebow wrote.
Such a system is not sustainable, however. Humans cannot exist on a finite plant with linear system, Plybon said.
“Everything goes one way and into the trash,” he said. “That’s just not the way we can live. Eventually we will run out.”
Solutions such as recycling, incinerating, or converting microfibers into synthetic fleece are not sufficient, or even effective, in keeping plastic out of the environment. Also, China, the world’s largest importer and recycler of plastic, has implemented increasing restrictions on foreign waste in the past couple years; most plastic items — save thin-necked plastic soda and water bottlers — are no longer recyclable in the current system.
“Your ‘recycling’ isn’t being recycled,” Plybon said.
Solutions in the system
Most importantly, people need to consider the entire life cycle of the items they consume, and ask themselves.
“Be aware of what you’re buying, and be aware of where it’s going to go,” Plybon said. “If it’s single-use and it’s plastic, it doesn’t make sense for it be around forever after you used it once.”
In addition to consuming less in general, individuals can switch to alternatives and embrace a Bring Your Own culture, using reusable mugs, water bottles, to-go containers, straws, zip lock bags, jars, and more. Buying in bulk is not only affordable but also allows people to avoid the wasteful packaging that often accompanies single-serve food products.
The next step is finding community solutions, such as setting zero-plastic waste goals at schools or workplaces; conducting educational events to raise awareness; holding outdoor cleanups; implementing local plastic-reduction policies; creating bans on plastic bags or polystyrene; or putting together a municipal plastics solution committee. Advocates can engage large-scale suppliers to ensure nonplastic alternatives are accessible and affordable for restaurants and other businesses.
The Surfrider Foundation recently launched its Ocean Friendly Restaurants certification program in Oregon, giving restaurants a way to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. To participate in the program, restaurants must follow four criteria: No using expanded polystyrene (also known as Styrofoam); following proper recycling practices; using reusable tableware for onsite dining and only providing disposable utensils for takeout food upon request; and no offering plastic bags for takeout orders. Additionally, restaurants must choose a minimum of three other criteria from a set of six.
Finally, individuals need to take their concerns about plastic pollution directly to the companies producing the items – the first point of the linear system. The world’s largest corporations make more money than most countries, and that depends on consumerism and constant buying. Engaging irresponsible companies through letter-writing campaigns, phone calls, or strikes, and supporting companies with responsible practices can lead to tangible results, Plybon said.
“We are the ones that can be empowered,” he added. “If we want to change the system we’re in now, we have to be advocating at a higher level.”
The Listening to the Land speaker series offered January through May, with presentations held the third Wednesday of every month at the library. The program, which is free and open to the public, is finished for 2018 and will resume in January 2019.