Plastic fantastic. But what can YOU do about it?

My kids on a typical beach on a remote Thai island

Plastic. As far as the eye can see.

Travelling around Thailand and Cambodia has been incredibly eye opening, on so many levels. However what succeeds in overwhelming almost everything that is truly wonderful here (the food, the scenery, the people, the culture…) is the plastic — it’s EVERYWHERE. Absolutely, heart wrenchingly, everywhere.

When Blue Planet II’s plastic episode aired in December 2017 it seemed the UK started a collective awakening to the tyranny of plastic; and 2018 and 2019 have continued that momentum. Reflecting our personal zero waste journey we prepared for our travels by ensuring we took our own travel cutlery, re-usable carrier bags, and water filter (we took the plunge and invested in the *amazing* Grayl water bottle which filters pretty much everything from any fresh water source, and I reckon it’s saved us at least 500 plastic bottles).

Our Grayl water bottle went with us everywhere, including the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia

Setting off with that mindset it was a visceral shock to arrive in Thailand and see plastic embedded in absolutely every aspect of life. It shouldn’t have been a surprise (but it was) when we then saw all that plastic detritus washed up on the beaches each day, and littering every single bit of beautiful countryside we saw on our journey.

Reflecting on it as an entrepreneur (of food sharing app, OLIO) I realised that plastic has achieved the mother of all ‘product market fits as they say. Convenient, cheap, light, leak proof, transparent or coloured, flexible or robust, capable of carrying advertising — it’s no wonder we’ve been consuming it like crazy ever since it was first invented! However the reality is that it has some very dark sides, which until now we’ve conveniently overlooked, or not been fully aware of:

— It doesn’t bio-degrade easily and so every piece lasts for 400+ years, quickly creating an *enormous* waste problem. In fact a 300 million tonnes p.a. waste problem, which is almost equivalent to the weight of the entire human population!

— Approximately 40% of all plastic use is single-use, with one million plastic beverage bottles being sold every single minute, of every single day for example. So 400+ years of pollution, harm & waste for something that’s used in the blink of an eye.

— When plastic does break down, it creates micro-plastics which are extremely harmful to marine life, and increasingly humans too, with recent research showing we’re each consuming a credit card’s worth of micro-plastics per week.

— A staggering 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans every year, 80% of which originates from on land, the remaining 20% coming from the marine industry. As a result there are 5 massive ocean gyres, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that comprises 78,000 tonnes of plastic.

Whilst recycling is often touted as a solution, it really isn’t. That’s because it’s difficult and expensive (in every sense of the word) to recycle plastic, with many plastics just not able to be recycled. Sadly also, our recycling can too often end up in dumps and oceans elsewhere in the world. And ultimately, recycling can only ever be a delay tactic rather than a panacea because recycling plastic downgrades it, meaning it can only be recycled once or twice before it once again becomes waste. As a result of all this, a mere 9% of all plastic produced between 1950 and 2015 has been recycled.

Source: Plastic Oceanic

So far, so depressing. But what can we as individuals DO about this?

  1. Single use plastic — An obvious one, but work to eliminate single use plastic from your life. I’d recommend picking one thing each week in your home/life and work on that, and then move onto the next item. I’ll be posting some tips & tricks on this one soon so please do follow me :)
  2. Material swap — Looking to buy something new? Why not see if you can get wood/glass/metal variants rather than plastic. If you look, it’s amazing what you can find. Easy swaps are extremely effective and don’t really involve much compromise or inconvenience.
  3. Move on from recycling — Thinking that recycling justifies your plastic consumption is a very dangerous and misleading path to go down. We have to face up to this inconvenient truth, and so stop plastic at it’s source, which is the point of purchase for us as individuals.
  4. Vote — Whilst personal action is *incredibly* powerful (the cumulative impact of billions of small actions is transformative change), what we desperately require is systems change. So perhaps the biggest thing you can do is vote for publicly elected officials that are unequivocal in their commitment to change. Whilst things are grim in Thailand right now, I’m thrilled to see that the Government is taking action and banning various forms of single use plastics imminently! This is what will drive widespread change, and so your vote really does count — research your candidates and participate.
  5. CampaignSum of Us, Change.org, 350.org, the WWF, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace all regularly campaign for businesses and governments to take action on plastic pollution. Make sure to follow them, add your signature and amplify campaigns on social media.
  6. Cleanup — Whenever you get the chance, why not join a beach clean up, have fun using the Litterati app, or just grab a bag and litter-pick in your local community. It can be surprisingly satisfying, and it’s not going to clean itself up.
  7. Buy — I don’t generally advocate buying new stuff unless you really need to. But when you do, why not see if you can buy something made with recycled ocean plastic? There are lots of businesses making great swimwear, clothing, footwear, accessories and sunglasses from ocean plastic.
  8. Boycott fossil fuels— Let’s not forget what plastic is made from: petrochemicals. And petrochemicals are produced by the fossil fuel industry, and have even been identified as a key growth driver for it. Recently I wrote The “power polluters” — how to hit them where it hurts. It contains lots of practical steps you can take to tackle the fossil fuel industry, so do check those out too.

Finally, never forget that with plastic — as with any form of waste — there’s no such thing as “away”. Do feel free to share your favourite plastic free tips in the comments below!

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Co-Founder & CEO of OLIO, the food sharing app. Getting my head around the climate crisis. Passionate about sustainability, startups & diversity.

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Tessa Clarke

Tessa Clarke

Co-Founder & CEO of OLIO, the food sharing app. Getting my head around the climate crisis. Passionate about sustainability, startups & diversity.

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