This #PlasticFreeJuly, pledge to see plastic for what it is: nearly-indestructible, highly polluted and far from disposable.
The bodies of our smartphones, the synthetics in our clothing, the pieces of our furniture and nearly every aspect of our lives today are linked by this common denominator: plastics. Answering global demands for convenience and access, especially in the industries of food and medicine, plastic has allowed for innovations that bring more products to more people than ever before.
But by and large, the innovation stops at invention and does not follow through with end-of-life solutions for these durable, long-lasting materials. Every year, 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans from landfilling and incineration, which allowing these discarded items into natural ecosystems. According to reports, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050—that’s only 30 years from now.
By that time, current projections estimate that the global population will hit nine billion, and the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production and 15% of the annual carbon budget. That most plastic packaging is used only once and 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80 billion-$120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use is not only damaging to the environment, it’s inefficient.
#PlasticFreeJuly is but one month out of the year, but taking the time to reflect on the impact plastic has on our finite resources and the ecosystems around us have the chance to make long-lasting impacts that we can carry forward. Changing the perception of “single-use” plastics (and all plastics, for that matter) is needed to create and strengthen systems that will capture these materials for recycling, divert them from landfills, and decrease virgin production in lieu of more regenerative resource structures.
Seeing plastic waste for what it is, a nearly-indestructible, highly polluted manmade substance that requires a manmade solution, is the first step to reevaluating our dependence on it as a raw material. The keyword here is seeing. One Beach Plastic is the work of two artists that see plastic as an opening into a pinpoint look at consumerism and the whole of human culture. Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang connect plastic to consumers with works of art that will, inevitably, stand the test of time.
Plastic cannot biodegrade, and it does not dissolve or get absorbed by the environment naturally—it is made to last forever, and inevitably causes damage. Originally celebrated at the urging of Canada in 1992, the global World Oceans Day last month aimed to create awareness around our interactions with plastic in order to alter our habits in line with this year’s theme: end plastic pollution.
A celebration to mobilize governments, businesses and everyday people around our connection to water and the ocean, this year’s theme and action focus of preventing plastic pollution highlights an issue we can all work to take action. But the advocacy need not end at a day. Plastic Oceans Foundation Canada utilizes the power of film and other media to educate Canadians to “rethink plastic” and inspire behavioral change year-round.
While we work to change people’s perspectives enough to prevent the compounding of an already large-scale problem, we must also work from the other end. Why aren’t we recycling more plastic? Because it is not economical due to the lack of demand for these materials in the current market.
Viewing plastics as something other than disposable is to bring value to all plastic, even the material that isn’t recyclable municipally. Beach plastic is a material that is particularly difficult-to-recycle for its exposure to contaminants and UV light, depreciation and mixed material makeup. TerraCycle’s partnership with Procter & Gamble and SUEZ to put out a fully recyclable shampoo bottle made from beach plastic for Head & Shoulders creates a market for this material, viewing it as more sustainable, economically and environmentally, than producing additional plastics.
Whether single-use, disposable and/or “highly recyclable,” it’s been projected that the average time it takes for most plastics to decompose is 500 years, with some plastics that we use in everyday life (like plastic shopping bags or plastic bottles) taking up to 1000. Changing the narrative of disposable plastics eliminates the idea of plastic “waste” and frames it as a resource worth capturing and conserving.
The fact is that plastic is not disposable at all, and changing the perception of plastic for consumers starts with the story that manufacturers, major brands, governments and social agents tell.
Tom Szaky is the CEO and founder of TerraCycle, the world’s leader in the collection and repurposing of complex waste streams. He is the author of three books and the winner of numerous awards for entrepreneurship. His work has also appeared in the The New York Times, Treehugger and mindbodygreen.