The Plastic Crisis: It’s a People Problem, Not a Plastic Problem

The Plastic Crisis: It’s a People Problem, Not a Plastic Problem

As Plastic Free July draws to a close, once again, I am drawn to some evaluation and reassessment on what it is about and what is achieved. For those who don’t know, Plastic Free July is a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution by providing resources and ideas to help them reduce single-use plastic waste every day. Plastic Free July has been on for some time. The movement has done much to increase global awareness of the long-term harmful effects of plastic-dependence and this year, it celebrated its 10-year anniversary.

Despite the foregoing though, the adoption of a no-plastic July is still far from mainstream and in countries such as mine, the concept is almost non-existent. In various other corners of the world, the goal of “phasing out” single-use plastics is gradually being replaced by the vaguer reference to “significantly reducing,” its usage. Now I understand that the pandemic has pretty much taken center stage in all we do this year but I still can’t help but wonder, why even now do some of us remain unbothered by the fact that we have drainages and rivers flowing with plastic?

Piecing together my conversations with people around me and the research on how plastic gets to the sea, I began to think that perhaps, we’re just not seeing things clearly. The Plastic Free July is premised on the idea that individuals use too much plastic and thus should try to cut down. But do we really use too much plastic? According to rePurpose Global, the average person in the US uses 84 kilograms of plastic per year. That sounds like a lot until you realize that, when compacted tightly together, that plastic would likely fit into one trash bag. In Europe, it is even less, 53kg of plastic consumption per person, and in India, just 11kg.

Plastic debris discovered on a remote beach in Arnhem Land, Australia. Photo: Sea Shepherd.

So, are we dependent on plastic in our day-to-day lives? Yes we are. But does that mean that we are using too much plastic? I don’t think so. There is a general idea that in this age and climate, we produce and consume too much plastic across the globe. The reality though is that this is rarely the case for developing countries like mine. The problem we have here does not hinge on us over-producing plastics; it lies majorly with inadequate waste management in general and plastic waste in particular. What is the issue here is that collectively as a society, we have failed to take plastic disposal and management as a priority when structuring the waste disposal systems of our cities and regions.

Those individual perceptions are what transfers to government policies and to a great extent, this explains the lackadaisical approach of our governments towards the plastic crisis. People and governments are perfectly capable of managing plastic waste and putting an end to the plastic crisis. A clear example of this capability is the popular attitude towards nuclear waste of any form. If about 12,000 metric tonnes are produced annually, we all know that there is no debate about what should be done with them.

Safe disposal of such toxic waste is a primary concern for any government because they know, as well as we do, all the ways it can negatively impact us and our environment. The same goes for sewage and other forms of human waste. No house or city can be built without a detailed plan on how these forms of waste disposal should be carried out, detailed to the last point. So yes, we can do something about our plastic problem if we set our minds to it. I do not presume or suggest here that we produce as much nuclear waste as plastic; or that plastic is as hazardous as nuclear waste or sewage, but I’m sure you get the point.

Zero Waste Kit - Biome

I am increasingly beginning to see that a widespread reduction in plastic will be difficult to attain if not impossible. Plastic represents the most viable, cheapest and easiest packaging solution that humans have discovered. Paper bags are great until you find that they cost up to four times the price of plastic to a consumer, and much more to producers.

Until a solution is found, our best bet is not to reduce the use of plastic but rather to radically improve the management of plastic waste. In my opinion, the way to do this is to change the perception that people have of plastic as this harmless non-issue. When we realize this, then it might help us reevaluate the approach to solutions.

Researchers have found that 90% of ocean plastic comes from 10 major rivers around the world. This also means that they do not magically appear in these rivers but come from the major cities situated at the banks of these rivers. For the Nile, it is Cairo, for Ganges, it is New Delhi and for the River Niger in Nigeria, it is Onitsha. Thus, the plastic problem is not an ocean plastic problem; it is an Onitsha city problem, a New Delhi plastic problem, or a Cairo waste disposal issue that has been unresolved for many years. If that is solved, then very little plastic in the ocean.

With this realization, the solution would have to be local, tailored to each city to solve that city’s plastic challenges. Thus, our efforts might best be utilized towards influencing those particular cities to do better and maybe then, we would record more success than what we currently have from convincing individuals to cut their plastic use. This is a crucial step to take because no matter how much individuals reduce their plastic-use, with the current inadequate systems in place, the ocean plastic crisis would remain.

Plastic pollution washes up on the shores of Arnhem Land, Australia. Photo: Sea Shepherd.

Beyond this also, is the deeper issue of perception; people don’t think that plastic is really harmful, so they don’t care how it is disposed of. I mean unless you’re a member of the eco-conscious community, when you hold a plastic bag, the only danger you think about is the risk of suffocation for children. To most people, plastic poisoning fishes and birds in the ocean is a pretty distant notion. Well, how about the fact that we too now eat plastic? A lot of people don’t know about that. This is more than another scientific discussion and we need to share what we know so more people can learn that this is an actual problem.

Ultimately the solution to our plastic crisis, as with most other issues, comes right down to our responsibility. Both as individuals and our world as one global village. We made plastic, we depend on it, we will keep drowning in it unless we conscious folk step up and demand that our governments, businesses and others do something about it.

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All images via Sea Shepherd.

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