Ask anyone, they will tell you, I am sure, they are not responsible for the plastic pollution. “But I always dispose of my waste properly! I always recycle when possible!”, you will hear them say. But, if no-one is responsible, how does so much end up in the rivers and the ocean?
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
“When a man is out of sight, it is not long before he is out of mind.” – Victor HugoPlastic Pollution Everywhere – But How Does It Get There?
This famous quote is probably quite a fair assessment of our attitude towards waste. Perhaps rightly, we think, if we dispose of our garbage correctly, the problem is gone. Turns out that this assumption is very wrong. Perhaps worse, are the many other elements, completely out of our control, that contribute to the pollution problem in our oceans today.
But I Always Put My Trash in the Bin!
So long as my trash goes in the bin I have done my job, right?
How many times have you come across a bin that looked like this and still tried to jam your garbage in? How much garbage do you think is going to get blown away before it can get collected and taken away?
It may seem ridiculous, but this is a common site here in Taipei and I’ll bet across the world. If I can just get my trash into the bin then it becomes someone else’s problem!
The problem doesn’t end here either because next, we need to move the garbage to a more permanent location. Before you say recycling, remember that, worldwide, less than 10% of all waste is recycled which means that the majority of your trash ends up as landfill or incinerated.
If your trash manages to arrive without blowing away, you can be assured, in part at least, it will not stay there very long. Strong wind and storms often blow loose garbage out of landfills. Once decomposition starts or the garbage is burnt, toxins begin to leak and poisonous gases and carbon dioxide is emitted, adding to the global warming problems.
This is not a solution.
The Other Side of the Story
That part of the story is probably the one we are most aware of. But there is another side of the story that we are less aware of but equally responsible for. Now, you may be thinking, “But how can I control illegal dumping of garbage. Or the nefarious people who throw away their cigarettes which are washed down the drain directly into the oceans!” These illegal and immoral actions do have an impact but it is not the biggest problem. It is also something we have no control over anyway.
In fact, the other side of the story is caused by us…again. It has been estimated that of all the trash in the oceans, 90% of it comes from just 10 rivers.
If you were to look at which Countries these rivers run through you would notice that they are also the Countries most likely to manufacture many of the cheap, disposable plastic items. Items that are typically found as landfill and littering the oceans, such as plastic bags, toys, toothbrushes, straws and bottles. They also happen to be the Countries most likely to have inadequate waste management facilities. This means trash is much more likely to end up being lost to the environment.
So, when we choose to buy the cheapest possible disposable plastic products from Developing Countries, without the means to manage their waste products, who is to blame? Is it fair to blame the Countries trying to provide us with the cheapest possible products that we demand? So cheap in fact, that they cannot afford to deal with their own health and environmental issues. Probably not.
The Game Plan
If we want to win this fight against plastic pollution, it is not going to be as easy as just putting your disposable cup in the bin or recycling your plastic bottle. We need to start thinking in a more holistic way. We need to reduce the amount of waste we make and most importantly, we need to start thinking about where our stuff comes from. Here is my top 5 list of things you can do to help win the fight against plastic pollution:
- Refuse – Whenever you can, say NO to plastic bags, straws, cups, forks and spoons! And ask yourself, do I really need this?
- Reduce – When you cannot refuse, use less of whatever you can!
- Reuse – Fill up your water bottle, take chopsticks out with you, reuse that plastic bag over and over.
- Repair – If it breaks, don’t automatically throw it away, check if you can fix it!
If you decide that you really do need to buy something then take the decision to buy a product marketed as sustainable and manufactured with consideration of the environment.
To keep on believing that throwing our trash in the correct bins and recycling is going to help our planet is wrong. It is up to as individuals to take a stand and start changing the way we look at our trash and the things that we buy.
For more ways to reduce your eco-footprint, check out the One Brown Planet sustainable toolkit.