Finally, the World Is Talking About Plastic Pollution

CC BY 2.0. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.

For years, this issue has been under the radar, but now it's the hottest environmental topic out there.

Last week, TreeHugger writer Sami asked, "Are single-use plastics having their coal moment?" He said he's beginning to think there's a movement going on, based on the surge in news headlines talking about plastic pollution.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sami. The plastic pollution problem was virtually unheard of when I started writing at TreeHugger four years ago and now I'd say it rivals climate change when it comes to people's biggest environmental concerns; it's certainly one of mine. Malcolm David Hudson, a marine ecologist at Southampton University in the UK, agrees with this perception, telling the Financial Times:

"Two years ago the whole issue [of marine plastic pollution] was completely under the radar. Now it is on the global agenda and everyone is talking about doing something about it."

There's a sort of snowball effect happening, where media stories are piling up and building on each other, and people are really starting to pay attention.

Sir David Attenborough's latest TV series, Blue Planet II, horrified much of the general population in the UK with its up-close look at plastic's devastating effects, and likely played a role in influencing Prime Minister Theresa May's recent promise to tackle plastic, which she called "one of the great environmental scourges of our time." The European Union has pledged to make recycling a top priority over the next decade and supermarkets are starting to take action, with the UK's Iceland saying it will switch from plastic packaging to paper within five years, and Canada's Bulk Barn allowing reusable and refillable containers in all its stores.

At the same time many artists are taking advantage of the public discourse to make statements of their own. Photographer Mandy Barker takes pictures of plastic debris "as if they were rare and precious sea creatures," a disturbing notion. Toronto nurse Tilda Shilof has created a vast and impressive mural using plastic medical waste. Jeremy Carroll has photographed people entangled in marine plastic garbage, much like fish and marine mammals would be. Sculptors such as Jana Cruder and Matthew LaPenta have recreated enormous Starbucks cups and bottle to remind people of their long-lasting waste.

© Jeremy Carroll

This public attention is crucial if anything is going to change. According to Richard Thompson, head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth and a leading researcher into ocean plastics, the many fancy technological solutions for cleaning up ocean plastics, such as floating barriers with screens to catch plastic and collect them in a central platform for removal to solid land, are pointless. Unless the flow of plastic into the oceans is stopped -- and it's currently estimated to be around eight million tons per year, or roughly the equivalent of one dump-truck every minute -- cleaning it up does not solve the problem.

What is needed are changes to consumer behavior and product design, both of which will be driven by public opinion. As the public attitude turns against disposable plastics, then grocery stores, clothing companies, restaurants, schools, and hotels will start to reexamine their policies. Governments will take note and realize it's far smarter to pass laws banning single-use plastics than to spend a fortune trying to clean up shorelines, save fish and seabirds, and incur possible future health-care costs caused by human plastic consumption via our plastic-saturated food chain.

Change is in the air, without a doubt. If the conversation has come this far in just a couple of years, imagine where we'll be in two more years' time. I hope that every grocery store will have a plastic-free aisle, that refillable and reusable containers will be allowed, that all 'convenience' packaging is made of paper, that my grandchildren will grow up not knowing what a straw or Styrofoam cup looks like.

But we, as individuals, need to drive that change. We must make the changes to our daily life that add momentum to the moment. We need to be the people we're waiting for to solve this problem.

We are the ones we have been waiting for

© Ashlee Piper