What’s unusual about the above photo? Perhaps you haven’t noticed an important detail: 1976 refers to the year in which a special edition of yogurt was created to celebrate the Montreal Olympics over 40 years ago. The photo spread around the world like wildfire on social media in 2016 after the Frenchman Matthew Leroux posted on Twitter that he had found the intact yogurt pot washed up on a beach.
The yogurt pot symbolizes the thousands of tons of difficult-to-remove plastic waste that pollute our oceans on a daily basis. This is harmful not only to numerous species of marine animals, which often mistake plastic waste for a viable food source and can often end up dying from ingesting it, but also to us human beings, because much of the microplastic particles end up in the guts of fish and seafood and ultimately on our dinner table!
According to the World Bank, the world’s cities produce enough waste to fill a 5,000-kilometer line of trash trucks every day. The lack of environmentally sound waste management and improper waste disposal is a serious problem for our seas and oceans. Because it is light, plastic is easily washed by rain into rivers, meaning that a large proportion of improperly disposed of waste ends up in the seas and oceans. It is estimated that over 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year, which is equivalent to a garbage truck of waste dumped into the oceans every minute!
On the other hand, it is important to recognize the benefits of plastic to society. Versatile, hygienic, moldable, often recyclable, flexible, cheap, durable and resistant, plastics are a part of our daily lives. And, even if plastic is one day replaced, make no mistake, it will be necessary to dispose of the waste produced by its substitute in an environmentally sound manner so as not to repeat the same problems we have with plastics today. In other words, the problem is not plastic itself, but rather how we dispose of it. This is especially true when it comes to the excessive use of disposable products used only once or twice before being “thrown out”, generating unnecessarily large quantities of garbage. We must therefore seek to avoid the trivialization of the use of plastic in disposable products, which should only be used for health and safety reasons (for example, syringes). And, in such cases, even greater care should be taken to ensure that these items are disposed of safely and in a properly controlled manner.
This complex and serious problem requires joint efforts. Government, business and society should work towards reducing the use of disposable plastic products, replacing them with reusable products (which are often made of plastic!) and ensuring the sound management of plastic waste. Consumers should help ensure the proper disposed of their waste by separating “organic” materials (animal and vegetal waste, such as food waste) and “dry” material (paper, metals, glass, and plastic, for example) and taking the dry waste to recycling cooperatives, where recyclable items are separated and sent for recycling.
But, RECYCLING IS NOT ENOUGH. The conscious consumer should also seek to REDUCE the amount of trash he/she produces. When it comes to plastic, avoid using disposable products (straws, cups, plates, cutlery, plastic bags, etc.) that are used only once or twice, replacing them with reusable ones. Around 35% of plastic products are used only once and for an average of 20 minutes! Furthermore, according to a study conducted by the Race for Water Foundation, around 10% of this waste ends up in the sea due to improper disposal.
Business also has an important role to play in tackling ocean plastic pollution, falling on companies to educate consumers, develop innovative packaging solutions, and reduce their impacts on the environment and society. Moreover, since the majority of plastics do not degrade, but rather break down into tiny particles, companies that produce the raw materials used for manufacturing plastic products should focus on developing biodegradable plastic that does not produce harmful by-products when it degrades. Although there are a number of biodegradable plastics on the market, they have yet to gain scale.
Another solution for the consumer industry is the development of concentrated products to enable the use of smaller packaging, thus reducing the volume of waste and alleviating the problem of improper disposal, as well providing other environmental benefits.
It is also necessary to create processes that allow the consumer to return plastic products to companies for reprocessing to ensure waste reaches its proper final destination – the so-called “reverse logistics” approach envisaged by Brazil’s National Solid Waste Policy.
The government has an important role to play in providing adequate waste collection and reprocessing infrastructure, supporting successful industry initiatives and the development of technology for environmentally sound waste management, and in promoting individual and collective attitude and behavior changes, whether through legislation that encourages sustainable solutions or education and publicity campaigns. The population needs to put pressure on politicians to create laws and support education and communication initiatives that are essential for creating and sustaining change. Overall responsibility should therefore be shared by all actors and stakeholders in society, without which solutions will not work. Let’s work together towards sustainable living!