The Price of Plastics
Pushing my way through the mountain of sweaty, drunken bodies, I stumble to the bar. I signal for a drink and the bartender nods in understanding. They pour the liquid into the glass, then reach for the black plastic in front of them.
“No straw!” I call out before they can put in the unnecessary plastic. I pay for the drink and walk away with my strawless beverage, satisfied that I’ve just helped save the world.
Okay, so I know it takes more than refusing a straw on a night out to really make a huge difference. But, hey – it’s a start.
The rate at which the world consumes plastic is an alarming one. Photographer Benjamin Wong, whose images of a mermaid swimming in 10,000 plastic bottles went viral late last year, was a public wake up call as to how disturbing plastics can be.
Ben admits to not realising how large the problem was until he was bottle deep in research and found out how embedded plastics will be in our food chains over the next few years.
“If animals eat plastic and we eat animals, we’re essentially going to be eating our own waste for centuries to come,” he said.
It takes 1000 years for a plastic water bottle to biodegrade, but in that time, it doesn’t stay whole. It becomes tiny micro plastics that end up in the water or in the soil. The ocean is currently filled with over five trillion pieces of plastic that get ingested by marine life. We then, in turn, ingest the marine life and end up with the plastic in our bodies.
Next time you buy a plastic water bottle, after you finish its content, you might as well marinate the bottle and eat it. It’s going to end up in your body in one way or another. This way you get a free meal with your drink. What a bargain!
Over 300 million metric tons of plastics are produced in the world annually. That’s around the equivalent of 10 million humpback whales. And to make things even more messed up, about half of that amount goes into products that are discarded within a year of their purchase.
We know that plastic isn’t biodegradable; we know it takes decades to decompose and is filled with chemicals that harm the environment. So why do we still produce it?
Well – for one, it’s convenient. But also, there’s not enough public outrage regarding the issue. People care about climate change; they debate it in Parliament and discuss in on programs like the ABC’s Q&A. And while there may be a lot of information about plastic pollution available, it’s doesn’t receive as much mainstream media attention as other environmental issues, such as coal mines destroying the Great Barrier Reef. Sure, the loss of one of Australia’s greatest assets is awful, but it’s microscopic compared to the destruction of the entire ocean.
Eva Davis-Boermans is one young Australian trying to do her part to reduce plastic waste. Eva and her mum often go for walks along the Australian coastline punctuated by them stopping to pick up all different kinds of plastic. Going to Bali on holidays last year, Eva was reduced to tears as she stood on the shoreline filled with plastics.
“It broke my heart, because all I could think of was my mum back in Australia doing all the clean ups and working so hard against such a monstrous problem,” she said. “It seems hopeless when you see things like that.”
So what are we going to do about it? While refusing a straw or opting for a reusable one is a small start, it’s not going to help the bigger picture.
Slowly but surely, Australia is starting to realise the colossal impact of plastics, and calls to ban the plastic bag are getting louder. Despite this, our country currently still goes through 3.92 billion plastic bags a year, and it’s estimated that 3.76 billion of those plastic bags are disposed of. When those bags make it to the ocean – which many do – it’s hard to tell the difference between them and a jellyfish.
Turtles and dolphins are among some of the many marine life that eat jellyfish and often end up swallowing plastic bags instead. If they manage to get the bags into their stomachs without choking, then the plastic will fill them up and, because it won’t decompose, the animal will think they’re full and will end up starving to death.
In fact, more than 100, 000 sea creatures die every year as a direct result of plastic pollution, not to mention birds, which also often mistake bits of plastic for food.
While plastic bags and water bottles are some of the more obvious causes for plastic pollution, many animals also die from ingesting balloons. As an alternative, Zoos Victoria is encouraging people to blow bubbles instead of having balloons at their next function – especially those filled with helium that are allowed to just float away.
Of course, there are initiatives in place seeking to combat the plastic problem. It’s not like nobody cares. Ocean Clean Up aims to rid the sea of plastic through advanced technologies that rely on ocean currents, with a pilot to be released later this year. In Australia, there’s the Tangaroa Blue Foundation, who are dedicated to the monitoring, removal and prevention of marine debris. There’s also Seaside Scavenge, which hosts regular waterway clean ups and clothes swap events where participants can use the plastics they collect to purchase pre-loved clothes, books and treasure.
But the problem is there’s just so much plastic and not enough people to clean it up. Not only that, but we haven’t made any steps to reduce our plastic consumption, so while you can take a piece out, until we seriously cut back how much plastic we use, we’re just continuously adding to the problem.
Plastic pollution is an international issue that cannot be solved by one country; we’re all connected by water. What washes up on our shores may have come from the other side of the world, and until every single country can rally together and come up with a solution or sign a treaty to reduce plastic and properly monitor its waste disposal, nothing will change.
Small steps like taking reusable bags shopping, blowing bubbles instead of balloons and saying no to plastic straws are easy, everyday tasks that everyone can begin with. “It’s really about starting to care and not just shrugging your shoulders and moving on,” explains Ben, “whether that’s calling your local congressman or women, or just reducing your own usage.”
It is a lot more convenient to watch the world crumble around you than to take action to stop it. So if all this sounds too complex, rather than make the simple switch to cut back on your plastic consumption, perhaps you could go on a holiday instead. I personally suggest the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sure, it’s in the middle of ocean and there’s not a lot to do, but there’s lots to see.
On top of the water, you’ll see a range of plastic products floating around from all over the world – how cultural. And if you dive into the polluted waters, you’ll come across even more rubbish below, and will emerge covered in micro plastics: just like glitter at a music festival, except it’s free, and the only price being paid is the destruction of the ocean and all the life in it.
If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, then do something about it. Otherwise, it won’t just be one island of plastic floating around in the ocean. Rather, we’ll be living in a world where both the land and sea are filled with plastic, making Earth one giant landfill.