The Plastics Epidemic
Think about how much plastic you used yesterday. Look around your desk, your kitchen, your bathroom. Chances are, you’re surrounded by plastic. From your toothbrush to your phone, from the baggie for your kid’s snacks to the bubble-wrap in your online shopping order, plastic is everywhere in our lives.
Now think about how much of that plastic you threw away or recycled after a single use. Multiply that by seven billion, and it becomes one of the greatest challenges we face as a planet – one that will require us all to come together to change the way we think about plastic.
Plastic has become ubiquitous, and for good reasons. It’s inexpensive to manufacture, lightweight yet strong, and incredibly versatile. It has improved food packaging leading to less food waste, made cars lighter-weight so they could be more fuel efficient, and created safe, low-cost medical tools and packaging that expanded access to life-saving treatment. As the list of beneficial applications continues to grow, we are becoming dependent on the material.
But as plastic has become more and more integral in our lives, we haven’t been accounting for the impact it has on our environment and our health. Plastic is the #1 type of trash in our oceans. Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit that organizes an annual coastal cleanup event in over 150 countries, said “plastic debris makes up around 85% of all the trash collected from beaches, waterways and oceans.” And that’s just the plastic that we can see.
When it’s in the ocean, plastic breaks down into microparticles that cluster in “plastic islands,” like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an expanse of roughly 7.7 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean that contains areas of spinning plastic debris and microparticles. That debris disturbs the marine ecosystem, making seafood less and less available (and more expensive). Fish, birds, and other marine animals are also consuming the plastic debris, filling their stomachs with the toxic and non-nutritious substance that leaves them malnourished and sick. As those animals are eaten by others further up the food chain, the plastic contaminants move up the food chain and eventually end up on your plate.
The obvious way to keep plastic from ending up in landfills or leaking into our waterways is to make sure we recycle plastic. After all, materials like aluminum and glass can be recycled almost ad infinitum. But most plastic can only be recycled twice before it becomes unusable. Recycling is a start, but it isn’t enough. The key is reducing the amount of plastic produced, especially single-use plastic items (like takeout containers) that make up more than one-third of all plastic produced.
With plastic, we’ve found ourselves in the middle of the Collingridge Dilemma. Posited by David Collingridge in his 1980 book The Social Control of Technology, the Collingridge Dilemma states that one cannot predict the impact of a new technology until it’s widely used, but it becomes difficult to control or change once the technology has become entrenched. Essentially, “when change is easy, the need for it cannot be foreseen; when the need for change is apparent, change has become expensive, difficult, and time-consuming.”
So how can we change the way we think about, use, and dispose of plastic before the challenge becomes insurmountable?
As a consumer, we can change our own behaviors, such as using reusable bags when we shop. There are hundreds of resources detailing the ways each of us can reduce our plastic waste. But relying on individuals to implement change can only address a small portion of the plastic epidemic.
Instead, we must attack the problem from every angle. Like all of the existential challenges we tackle at RL Leaders, the Plastic Dilemma cannot be solved by a single organization, a single law, or any other single quick fix. We need to bring together leaders and innovators across industries to build a solution set that balances regulation, education, and innovation.
Right now, the burden falls largely on consumers and local governments to handle the disposal of plastic waste. Many current regulations, like bottle deposit-refund programs and plastic bag bans and taxes, place the financial burden on the consumer. Yes, these laws have begun to reduce plastic waste while also generating funds for local municipalities to put into improving area environmental protections. But we must go a step further. Government regulations should shift the burden back to manufacturers and distributors, which will encourage them to ensure that less plastic is being produced and less plastic is making it into our hands.
Environmental protections have become a partisan issue, particularly in the U.S., but there are good reasons to change our relationship with plastic that appeal across party lines. Whether you’re trying to reach an environmentalist that already thinks about how plastic is damaging our ecosystems and contributing to climate change or you’re talking to a fiscal conservative that knows it’s more fiscally responsible to prevent damage to the environment than to clean it up, there are ways to connect the importance of reducing plastic waste to every person’s values.
Large institutions like schools, hospitals, and big companies have the opportunity to lead by example through implementing programs to reduce waste in their cafeterias, installing water-bottle friendly water fountains, and offering classes on reducing plastic waste, all of which make the idea of reducing plastic waste feel like a common goal. The media also has the power to change our behavior and perspective, both through storylines related to plastic waste or much more subtle ways, like featuring characters that carry reusable shopping bags and water bottles.
Effective messaging isn’t just about the message, it’s also about the messenger. People are much more likely to listen to and agree with someone they like and trust, whether it’s a politician on their side of the aisle, a leader in their religion, or a character on their favorite show. We need to use every platform to put the right messengers in front of the people they’ll sway.
The Plastic Dilemma has arisen because plastic has filled a need in our society. So how can we find new, better, environmentally-friendly ways to fill that need without losing what made plastic so popular – the convenience, cost, and versatility? Innovation. Incentivize innovators to develop biodegradable alternatives to plastic and to expand research into recently discovered enzymes capable of breaking down plastic. Support entrepreneurs developing ways to make reusable options more accessible. Reward tech companies that are improving the ease of green options, like food delivery apps that give customers the option to “skip the utensils” on their orders. Make it a priority for innovators across industries to develop ways to reduce our dependence on plastic.
Plastic isn’t a problem that can be solved easily. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take all of us. From the leaders in industry, to the officials in government, to the innovators developing new technologies, to individuals from every walk of life making small changes in how they use and dispose of plastic.
Let’s start working on the Plastic Dilemma before it becomes insurmountable.
How will you do your part?