The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Spanning the width of the ocean from the West Coast of America to Japan lies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of several across the world. A spinning vortex of marine debris, the patch of rubbish in the sea is made up of two areas swamped in plastic - the Western Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch. Both are created when debris makes its way to the centre of ocean gyres, which are circular currents created by wind patterns, the rotation of the planet, and landmass.
For the Plastic Oceans Foundation, recycling is a last resort. Every time plastic is recycled the quality diminishes, and after two or three cycles the material is useless. Jo explains: “Of course it’s better than chucking it in the ocean, but not using plastic in the first place is by far the best thing we can do.”
Before plastic hits the recycling bin, there are alternatives for keeping it out of the ocean, and they start with people power: “People drive business. Demand drives supply and if people start demanding different things, then businesses will have to start changing the way they supply them. And if people are choosing businesses because of the packaging as well, not just the product, then other businesses will follow suit.”
As well as this strength in numbers, there is also much we can do as individuals. An anecdote Jo draws inspiration from, is a five-year-old girl who made it her mission to not only refuse plastic straws, but to tell local restaurant owners why they should not be offering the single use product, but instead switch to using paper or bamboo alternatives.
“If a little kid like that can do it, all of us can make a difference,” says Jo.
City to Sea
City to Sea is a UK organisation that is also on a mission to phase out single-use plastics. By campaigning and raising awareness nationwide, it is encouraging both businesses and environmental campaigners to make small changes, which will have a big impact.
One such change was persuading all major UK retailers to stop selling plastic ear buds and make the switch to paper alternatives by the end of 2016. Over 150,000 people signed the #SwitchTheStick petition, and pledged not to buy plastic cotton buds. The organisation’s founder, Natalie Fee, says: “What that really did for retailers, was show that there is a strong public appetite for change.”
Focusing on this single issue will result in stopping over 320 tonnes of single use plastic being produced annually for UK markets from this point onwards. This is single-use plastic that would never have been recycled, the bulk of which may have ended up being flushed away into the sea.
The founder of this Bristol-based organisation and now a self-proclaimed Green Champion, Natalie, adds: “Plastic pollution is a massive problem, but if we just change little things like not using plastic bags, water bottles, and cotton buds, then that really is a good way to start to tackle it.”
Natalie was inspired to act after seeing TV footage of albatross chicks starving in their nests with their stomachs full of plastic: “I couldn’t just sit back and let that happen,” she says. “It was like seeing my everyday items of plastic inside the stomach of albatross chicks thousands of miles away, and for me that was really, really wrong. That’s why I decided to do something about it.”
Plastic bottles are currently on the agenda for City to Sea, with the Refill campaign setting out to change behaviours when it comes to drinking water on the go. The Refill app encourages people to take a reusable bottle out with them, and fill up with tap water at participating cafés, shops, or other businesses. A digital map shows where a friendly tap is available, and the user gets points for filling up. Points can eventually be exchanged for a stainless steel water bottle.
So far, over 700 businesses in the UK have registered with the app, but the main aim of this venture is to change consumer behaviour: “It’s about breaking down the taboos, so that people feel comfortable about going in and asking for something for free from a shop or cafe, and giving them a reason to remember to carry their water bottle with them.”
Licensed premises in the UK are required by law to provide tap water on request, but a recent survey found that 71% of people would be uncomfortable asking for free tap water without buying something else.
Social media has also become a powerful tool in the fight against single-use plastic, with City to Sea raising awareness through videos about topics ranging from the dirty truth behind flushable wet wipes, to plastic-free periods.
When it comes to enacting meaningful change, Natalie has the following advice: “Firstly, you have to stop buying those products you don’t want to see on the shelves. Then you have to either get in touch with the suppliers, or join or start a campaign.
“The retailers and manufacturers do respond to public pressure, but there needs to be a lot of it, and it needs to be coordinated.”
Having proved that individuals can and do make a difference, it is, says Natalie, consumers, who have all the change-making power.
Photos courtesy of David Jones