I attended an Ocean Conservation Panel on marine plastic pollution last week. It was really interesting with incredible speakers, and made me reflect on my history with the issue of ocean plastics and where we should go from here.
While marine plastics pollution is an issue that is only becoming more prevalent in the media every day now, I don’t remember a time before it was on my radar. This can be credited to my mum, who during twice-daily dog walks on the beach would notice how much litter washed up on the shore and be incensed by it. Like most people, my education and understanding has only increased recently, with documentaries like A Plastic Ocean really capturing the public consciousness, and videos of straws being pulled from turtles’ noses going viral.
We took a wild dolphin watching trip to Egypt when I was ten, after which my future ambitions to be a marine biologist were probably inevitable. The problem there was even worse – as soon as you left the areas cleaned and tidied for tourists there were bottles strewn across the sand. I returned from that trip with the idea of organising a beach clean with my school back at home (a spark fanned into a flame by mum, I’m sure). Unfortunately I was not quite the pint-sized eco-activist that the Meek sisters, founders of Kids Against Plastic, are. A lukewarm response from whichever teacher or staff member I first raised it with was enough to stop me taking it further. This was just a case of bad timing – a year or two later ‘green’ and ‘enterprise’ became buzzwords in Scottish primary education.
Not a spot of litter to be seen near tourist accommodation
So young and ready to be inspired!
Plastic pollution on a non-tourist beach
Since then my fight against ocean plastics has been mostly one of picking up litter when I can, including while snorkelling or diving (on a dive in Greece I filled both BCD pockets with plastic, snorkelling in Croatia I spent a good ten minutes following a long fishing line, detaching it from rocks, and got a few sea urchin spines for my trouble). And of course, these are only the large plastics. The main problem is micro plastics, broken down to the same size as phytoplankton and slowly making their way up the food web (and eventually on to your plate, if you eat fish). Apparently now there are even micro plastics in the air we breathe.
Recently, I’ve started to think a lot more about personal changes I can make to reduce my contribution to the problem. I tick the fairly basic boxes – I never use a plastic straw (not a hardship since they don’t seem to come with a pint of cider), or disposable plastic cutlery. I use recyclable shopping bags. I extremely rarely buy bottled water (there’s nothing wrong with tap in the UK people!). I recycle. I never (ever, ever) litter and I never (ever, ever) have and I never (ever, ever) will. (Why is litter a thing? I’m deadly serious here. I don’t get it.)
Ocean plastics to-be, seen by my parents on a recent trip to Greece
But I also don’t make as much of an effort to avoid plastics (particularly single use plastics) as I could. I’ve been reading the blog My Plastic-free Life to get some ideas. I don’t think everyone needs to go completely plastic free, but there are some really good tips for small things you can do. Use bar soap instead of liquid, and shampoo for that matter. Buy a bamboo toothbrush. Most of the food related tips aren’t that useful for me as they seem to revolve around buying at farmers’ markets – not a massive thing in Bristol. However, at the Ocean Conservation Panel I attended the other night, Edward Kosier made a small and simple suggestion – check the packaging before you buy, and if it isn’t widely recycled, buy an alternative that is. I know it’s absurdly obvious, but the truth is, I don’t. I’m going to start.
He also made a point about Adidas’ recycled ocean plastic trainers, which I previously found quite impressive – are they just a way of marking more money, especially from the environmentally conscious, while distracting from how much Adidas contribute to the problem with the rest of their production. Perhaps. Probably.
Recently a couple of things have made me realise that we should be careful of products made from recycled ocean plastics. For example, clothing will be washed and plastic microfibres rinsed through the washing machine back into the sea.
But they’re not all bad. Look for products that don’t get washed often or thrown away. Bureo make skateboards from recycled fishing nets. Ocean Sole create art from washed up flip flops in Kenya, also providing an income for local people.
You can also support companies that do their bit – this 4Ocean bracelet at $20 is a lot more than I’d pay for some glass and recycled plastic cord usually, but when you consider that 4Ocean remove one pound of plastic from the ocean for every bracelet sold, it starts to seem like a bargain. If you’re looking for a gift for a loved one with a love of the sea, you could do a lot worse.
There are products that can help you or others to use less plastic in daily life – a nice refillable water bottle, a metal or glass straw and cutlery set (this is my favourite. I don’t really need one because I don’t use straws and I just take normal cutlery from home, but if you’re more likely to use something that folds up neatly in a pretty patterned wrap, why not? Etsy is gold for this stuff).
The GuppyFriend, as well as having a great name, is for putting polyester and acrylic clothes in when you wash them to catch microfibres so they don’t wash into the sea (it is made of plastic… but it’s not single use!).
While I’m sure there are many benefits to all of these things, especially if you could get everyone doing them, I can’t help but think individual behaviour changes are not really the answer. We are all small in a big world. I’m not trying to be discouraging, but I’m saying perhaps the biggest impact of making these changes is you change your mindset. When you change your mindset, you also impact that of those around you. And when groups of people start to think and behave in certain ways, what we demand as consumers changes, and industry is forced to cater to those changes. Ultimately large-scale industrial changes are needed, and we need to do what we can to inspire them. Recently, Wetherspoons banned plastic straws. If that isn’t a sign of how far we’ve come, I don’t know what is.
At the Ocean Conservation Panel, Sylvia Earle didn’t seem especially interested in talking about small everyday changes people can make. She wanted to speak about a bigger changes in our social attitude toward plastics. She encapsulated the heart of the issue with one phrase that I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “We created something indestructible, and treat it as though it’s disposable.”