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Plastic pollution of the oceans must stop now: UN

The oceans of the world are filling up with plastic litter, killing marine animals of all kinds, and eventually finding its way into our bodies as we consume seafood. That’s the reality the world faces, in a nutshell. The numbers are almost too large to be meaningful: 300 million tonnes of plastic used each year; 50 billion bottles of water purchased each year; more microbead particles in the oceans than there are stars in the galaxy; 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050; more plastic in the seas than there are fish; 8.3 pieces of plastic in the average oyster. What is the average person supposed to do when faced with statistics like that, especially if that person lives nowhere near the sea? It is easy to put out of mind even the largest problem when one does not see it.

The UN hopes to change all that with a new program it calls unprecedented. The goal is to eliminate the global use of microplastics in cosmetics and single-use plastic—water bottles, shopping bags, throwaway packaging—by the year 2022. The head of UN Environment sounds determined and even optimistic. In a statement, Erik Solheim said that the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans has gone on for too long and “It must stop.”

Solheim said that throughout the year 2017 they will be announcing “ambitious measures” by countries and businesses to eliminate the microbeads from personal care products (Canada and the US have taken steps to ban them already), to ban or tax single-use bags, and to “dramatically” reduce other disposable plastic items.

It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans. Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables. We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop.

If there’s to be even a faint hope of success, given humanity’s depressing history of self-destruction and short-sightedness, the CleanSeas campaign will have to get three key stakeholders on board: governments, industry, and us, the people. In short, everyone.

A few governments, notably that of Indonesia where the problem of plastic pollution is so bad that the country’s beaches are literally buried in the stuff, have committed. Indonesia says it will cut litter by 70 per cent by 2025. Uruguay says it will tax single-use plastic bags this year.

A beach in Indonesia.

As for industry, the worldwide tech company Dell provides one example of what can be accomplished. It has begun using recycled ocean plastic in its packaging in a pilot program. The packaging being tested combines plastic litter collected from shorelines and beaches and then combined with other recycled plastics from bottles, food storage containers and the like. Its aim is to produce 100 per cent sustainable packaging by 2020. According to reports, the company has already used 50 million pounds of recycled materials in its products.

Other companies may need more persuading. Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies in the UK, for example, opposed a return-deposit scheme on their drink bottles and cans, even though such programs have demonstrable success in keeping plastic litter out of the oceans. Now, following a Greenpeace investigation, Coca-Cola has reportedly reversed its opposition and will begin trials of a “well-designed deposit return scheme,” starting in Scotland.

The World Economic Forum published a study in 2016 in which it reported that globally just 14 per cent of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling. We could  be doing much better, and businesses could profit. In January 2017, the WEF set out strategies to increase that recycling rate to 70 per cent of plastic. They include fundamental redesign and innovation for small-format plastic packaging (sachets, tear-offs, lids, sweet wrappers etc.) that represent 30 per cent of the market by weight and that often escape collection systems, ending up in the environment. The organization says that recycling represents an important economic opportunity for 50 per cent of plastic packaging if improvements are made both to the design and to the systems for managing it after use.

That leaves us, the people. Unfortunately, we may be the weak link in the chain. According to Sky News in Britain, most people say they’re concerned about ocean pollution (84 per cent), but at least a third of people don’t convert that concern into action. They still throw plastic bottles and packaging into non-recycling bins. Less than half of plastic bottles used in the UK are recycled after use (in Norway 96 per cent of bottles are recycled, thanks to a deposit return scheme). Many people in the UK say they flush wet wipes down the toilet. They even admit to littering (10 per cent).

Some advocates for cleaning up the oceans believe, no doubt rightly, that nothing meaningful can happen without real, widespread behavioural change, like giving up plastic bottled water, plastic straws, and diaper wipes. Plastic shopping bags should be banned or taxed at a high enough rate that no one will want them. Styrofoam and plastic takeout containers should be made illegal, a writer in TreeHugger argues. Packaging should be returnable directly to the manufacturer.

The CleanSeas campaign wants consumers to urge the companies they deal with to reduce the amount of packaging they use. Getting rid of plastic in the workplace is another concrete step people could take. Using one’s own coffee cup instead of a takeaway would make an enormous difference if repeated hundreds of millions of times a day.

The CleanSeas website has much more information about what individuals can do to help make this happen.

Auberge on the Park-Tridel


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