Our world is drowning in a sea of plastic

It’s a global problem but there are local solutions that can help: Ellie O’Byrne talks to the Cork people working at the coalface in the battle to reverse our plastic dependence.
Our world is drowning in a sea of plastic

20,000 plastic bottles are being bought each second around the world.

EIGHT million metric tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year.

Disposable plastic items, like water bottles and plastic cutlery, are used just once and then thrown in the trash, where, if they’re not recycled (and most aren’t), they take hundreds of years to break down. Or, they escape waste streams and make it into the planet’s oceans, where they poison sea life and enter the human food chain.

Plastic has only been an amazingly versatile material for the past hundred years, but our dependence on it has mushroomed. Globally, 6.3bn metric tonnes of plastic waste have been produced since the 1950s. Just 9% of this has been recycled. The rest has gone to landfill, incinerator plumes, and our oceans.

20,000 plastic bottles are being bought each second around the world.

The numbers may be bleak, but 2018 was marked by a growing global awareness that our dependence on single-use plastics must end, if our descendants are not to be buried in our waste.

Natural historian David Attenborough’s stark warning in the Blue Planet 2 TV series has opened many people’s eyes to the problem, despite criticism from other environmentalists that the beloved broadcaster’s plea for us to cut back on the use of plastic was too little, too late.

Policy-makers are waking up to the lethal problem of plastic pollution. In October, the European Parliament voted for an EU-wide ban on some single-use plastic items, including cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws, drink-stirrers, and balloon sticks. The European Commission estimates that marine litter costs the EU anywhere from €260m to €701m per year.

Irish interest has played an important role in highlighting the problem. A National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) study, published in February, revealed that 73% of fish caught in the North Atlantic, an area that should be low in plastics pollution, had ingested microplastics.

It may seem like a global problem, but it’s very much a local one, too, says Bernadette Connolly, of Cork Environmental Forum (CEF). CEF has been involved in numerous Cork initiatives in 2018 to cut down plastic waste.

“Citizens are very aware of the issue and we’ve seen growth in the Zero Waste movement, with groups such as Zero Waste Cobh and Zero Waste Bandon continuing to develop,” Bernadette says.

She believes the so-called ‘Blue Planet effect’ has highlighted plastic consumption and waste for many Irish people, as well as for international audiences.

“NGOs have been working on these issues for many years, but the power of the media, and in particular film, has a widespread and immediate impact. Everyone was talking about single-use plastic this year, with many distressed by images of whales, birds, and other marine life being injured by the plastic they are ingesting.

Some of the rubbish recovered during the Ballybranagan beach clean in east Cork. The clean-up was organised by the Clean Coasts Ballynamona group.
Some of the rubbish recovered during the Ballybranagan beach clean in east Cork. The clean-up was organised by the Clean Coasts Ballynamona group.

“We know, from our Coastwatch surveys and others, such as An Taisce, Clean Coasts, and Cork Harbour Waterkeeper, the challenge of ridding our coastline and ocean of plastic,” she says.

But plastic pollution is the end of a process. Attempts to curb plastic waste can’t be resolved by picking up litter on beaches; moves will also need to be made to limit its manufacture and use.

Bernadette says this is where purchase power comes into play; Cork consumers have a real opportunity to vote with their wallet to show businesses that they don’t want plastic packaging on products.

“The one thing everyone can do is try to acquire less through shopping,” Bernadette says.

“You can try buying in bulk, especially at stores such as TWIG, for those lucky enough to live in, or near, Clonakilty. It’s also a really easy change to just stop buying bottled water. The public water supply in Cork is probably much better than that of most bottled sources, and if you do need water, use a reusable bottle. We can all make a difference and nudge business to change.”

But Bernadette says private citizens can only be expected to shoulder so much of the burden in eliminating plastic waste.

“The other part is for the EU, governments, and businesses to commit to stop using so much unnecessary plastic packaging,” she says.

“I think Cork is quite good in general. Public bodies and the private sector are all engaged on this issue. However, there is still too much single-use plastic, even at things like seminars and conferences.

“Many are run by public bodies using public money and should, at this stage, stipulate ‘no plastic’ with conference organisers and caterers.”

Dr Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray are the masterminds behind Plastic Free Kinsale, a new community initiative to get Kinsale to go single-use-plastic-free. Last February, a video they shared on social media, of them discussing which items of common household plastic were suitable for recycling, went viral nationwide and generated over 205,000 views within days.

2018 was indeed the year of plastic awareness, Madeleine says.

“People were talking about it at the school gate, Googling it while waiting for their children to finish soccer, bringing it up at meetings in work. That’s never happened before.”

The group has reached significant milestones in getting the popular tourist destination town to rise to the challenge and get serious about cutting back on plastics, according to Madeleine.

“Kinsale has embraced the challenge,” she says.

“We have hotels and restaurants removing straws, changing-up water bottles in guests rooms, installing water fountains, purchasing compostable ware and so much more.

“Clubs are running green events and schools are enrolling for our programme, which is called Plastic Free 4 Schools.”

“Our biggest success in 2018 was to establish our new social enterprise, Change by Degrees, and to win a Social Entrepreneurs of Ireland Award, in October,” Madeleine says.

“Change by Degrees works with businesses and individuals to change the conversation on sustainability, one degree at a time.”

With all the good will in the world, can local initiatives like this make a dent in the global packaging industry? It’s an industry that’s flying in the face of consumer pressure and forecasting enormous growth: it’s expected to be worth €261bn by 2025, predicts the Plastics Today industry newsletter, and employs one million workers in the US alone, according to the Plastics Industry Association.

But Madeleine still says individual choice is a good place to start: time is running short to save the planet for future generations.

“People have more power than they realise and we don’t have time to wait for our kids to grow up and solve this problem for us,” she says.

“We need decision-makers at home and at work to take smart, dynamic action now.”

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