Blessing and curse: A world made of plastic

By Willemijn Bertels

The EU plans to ban the top 10 single use plastic items that are most often found in the sea. Or, in any case, those items for which “alternatives are readily available and affordable”. The consumption and production of other single use plastics will be discouraged through “awareness-raising measures” and by holding producers accountable for the costs of waste management [1]. Although this is a positive development, the rhetoric behind it denies individual consumers’ relationship to plastic pollution. In order to create structural change, we need to address our individual responsibility.

Anyone who has ever seen a picture of a sea turtle with a plastic straw in its nose, or a seal strangled by plastic fishing nets, knows that the existence of “plastic soup” is not a joke. Over 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans and seas each year, 80 percent of which is litter from land – caused both by the industry and individuals. Huge amounts of plastic are found in hotspots and gyres across the world’s waters. Most often, the everlasting material ends up strangling, suffocating, poisoning or starving animals throughout the marine food chain – from plankton to whales. And because it does not biodegrade, it ends up on our own plates as well [2].

Weathering, sun and waves break down bigger pieces of plastic into tiny chunks, easily mistaken by animals for food. These microplastics absorb other toxins and rapidly become even more toxic than they were at the start. Microscopic pieces of plastic have not just been found in our sushi, but also end up in honey, drinking water and even the air we breathe. It is not yet clear how this affects our health, but it is worrisome to say the least [2].

Plastic is found on every beach around the world, either washed up ashore or discarded by people on land. Suffering the ugly consequences of mass tourism, tropical islands in the Philippines and Thailand even have had to shut down and ban visitors, in an attempt to restore the damage done. But even on the most remote stretches of earth, plastic has the power to turn paradise into graveyards [3].

It’s clear that plastic pollution is a real and worldwide threat, that starts and ends with individual choices. However, if you have never been to a tropical island or if you are not the type to litter, it may not seem like that dead albatros with bottle caps in its stomach has anything to do with you. It is easy to distance yourself from the problem if your relationship to it is not directly visible. Even more easy, is to blame others: the tourists on faraway islands, the people that spit out their chewing gum on the streets (yes, that’s made from plastic as well) and the previous generations that both blessed and cursed the world with the invention of plastic. What is not easy, is to accept individual responsibility.

Although the EU initiative to ban single use plastics is laudable, again, the blame is shifted from individuals to producers and providers. Certainly, these actors are largely responsible for bringing plastic onto the market, but let’s not forget about our own share of responsibility. Every day, we choose to consume these products, discarding 40 percent of them within minutes after their use [4]. Moreover, the ubiquity and convenience of the everlasting material has rendered us spoiled, lazy, and impatient. We now live in a world where we expect to buy year round fresh produce from the other side of the world, where we can get anything to take away, and where everything is pre-cut, pre-sliced and prepackaged. The problem lies within our modern culture, where anything has to be fast, cheap and easy.

Numerous alternatives for single use plastic exist. Moreover, many of the plastic items we use every day do not even require a sustainable substitute. Most fruit and vegetables come with a free protective wrap – it’s called the peel. However, if we keep consuming plastic, the market will keep providing it to us. Banning a handful of single use plastics from the market and warning about the negative effects of others will not change our consumption habits.

In order to change the plastic world we live in, we must change our behavior. This is no simple task, but this where the EU could take us by the hand. Make it easier and cheaper to make the right choice: Impose taxes on plastic and invest in sustainable alternatives. Make consumers aware that they can always make a difference, even if it just means bringing your own cup to the coffee place. If the EU fails to address this individual responsibility, we can always start by taking it ourselves.






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