Is the Tide Turning on Our Plastic Addiction?

For the oceans’ sake, we’d better hope so.

June 08, 2018

Workers removing nearly 18 pounds of plastic bags from the belly of a whale found near Songkhla, Thailand

Thailand Department of Marine and Coastal Resources

Today is World Oceans Day. People all over the globe are gathering to think about, discuss, celebrate, and offer support for a natural resource that covers 70 percent of the planet, contains 97 percent of its water, and directly or indirectly sustains all life on earth. Events tied to World Oceans Day range from symposia-filled academic conferences to beach cleanups to art exhibits. Underlying all of them is the knowledge that the world’s oceans are as vulnerable as they are vital, and that we have an obligation to treat them better—much better—than we have been.

The list of our oceanic crimes is long and appropriately reads like an indictment on multiple counts: acidification, offshore drilling, overfishing, noise pollution, and habitat destruction in the first degree. But plastic pollution is one of the most visible of our assaults against the sea. Every single year, we dump into the ocean up to 14 million tons of plastic, from two-mile-long fishing nets to the microbeads in our toothpaste.

The facts surrounding this particular crime are easy to grasp. We make too much plastic, we use too much plastic, and we dispose of too much plastic. And when it floats out to sea, our trash leads to the torturous deaths of all manner of marine wildlife. This pilot whale, for instance, was found last week in a Thai canal with more than 80 plastic bags, weighing 18 pounds altogether, in its stomach.

Awareness of our own complicity in this problem has recently led to a public awakening, of sorts, with regard to plastic straws. Restaurants, hotels, airlines, food-service companies, cities, even entire nations are banning or thinking of banning straws and plastic stirrers, citing the horrific physical damage they cause to fish and other sea life when they enter marine ecosystems. In the United States alone, we use and discard countless plastic straws every single day. Because they’re so small and seem so inconsequential, people are far less likely to recycle straws than they are other kinds of everyday consumer plastic. And that means straws are far more likely to make their way down the waste stream and into the sea.

Like its predecessor, the Ban the Bag movement, the Ban the Straw movement is drawing momentum from the ease with which consumers can connect their behavior to demonstrable environmental harm. When we see video of a dying whale, or a suffering turtle, or the stomach contents of an albatross chick, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a massive, swirling vortex of (mainly) plastic debris between Hawaii and California that’s believed to be twice the size of Texas—the straws and bags and water bottles we see look exactly like the ones we encounter all around us, just like the ones we were using a few minutes ago.

Call on Congress and the Trump administration to save our oceans and marine wildlife

Self-awareness represents a crucial first step, but it’s still just that: a first step. When you’re talking about a culture that goes through countless straws every 24 hours, efforts by a handful of restaurant or hotel chains to stop contributing to the problem—even if they resulted in tens of millions fewer straws being used in this country each day—would amount to a drop in the bucket. The ocean is a very big bucket. And it can take just one plastic straw or plastic bag to ruin—or end—an animal’s life.

As welcome as these bans by businesses and local governments are, more is needed. The next step is large-scale public policy that reflects our changing values and evolving mores—and it can’t stop at straws and bags. On Wednesday, India announced that it will ban not only straws and bags but all single-use plastic by 2022, a move that the United Nations has rightly characterized as “unprecedented” and a shining example of “global leadership.” If this nation of 1.3 billion people is actually able to follow through on its commitment, the impact could be literally world-changing. The burden on our landfills and waterways would ease dramatically, of course. But even more significantly, no other country would ever again be able to say: No, sorry, we just can’t go that far; the logistics and the economics are too daunting. If the world’s second-most populous country can do it, anyone can.

“The choices that we make today will define our collective future,” said Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, in conjunction with Wednesday’s announcement. Made at the individual level, these choices can and should make us feel better about ourselves. But when made at the national and international levels, they can make us feel better about the planet—its oceans, its people, and its chances.  

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