“No-one in their daily life within a period of 10 minutes isn’t touching something that is made of plastic.” This quote by Professor Andrew Holmes, a polymer chemist and professor at the University of Melbourne, show the current reality of many globally. Plastic is a popular material, and rightfully so. It is very versatile and cheaply available, this allows it to be used in a variety of ways and in a variety of things. It has even revolutionised several industries from electronics to medicine. However, this extremely convenient material does have a hefty impact on the environment, and this fact has become very commonplace on the internet. For the past few months, I have been seeing an increasing number of Facebook posts related to plastic-waste, calling for action against the pollutant. More and more people have been sharing posts on plastic straws (pictured below), biodegradable plastic bags, and plastic in our seafood. There is also an ongoing petition making its rounds in The Netherlands, to reduce unnecessary plastic packaging for grocery items. I have noticed a push back against plastic products all over the internet, and after doing a little digging, found that most of the articles and posts began circulating in 2017 but gained traction more recently. And being an environmental science student, I would like to think that this is because of a changing culture that is more cognisant of the environment.
As social media is more easily accessible, it is easier to share information so that more people learn about the environment and thus are increasingly conscious of the issues. And so it is no surprise that there has been a lot of discourse regarding plastics, especially single use plastics, on media platforms. Additionally, with the launch of National Geographic’s recent ‘Planet or Plastic?’ multi-year campaign in collaboration with American actress Zooey Deschanel, there is more media coverage now than ever. And this is just one of the few initiatives online that have increased their media presence significantly.
Since such news is covered extensively, with short video clips, posts, articles, and tweets, there has been a rise in conscious consumerism amongst millennials. According to a study by Unilever, 33% of consumers are choosing to buy from ‘conscious’ brands, brands that are perceived to be socially and environmentally good. Although conscious consumerism has been known to be a ‘niche trend’ and often not considered a solution with many advocating for zero waste instead, it can drive innovation to replace plastics when demand is high enough. With the considerable coverage that this issue has received online and offline, it does show there is some merit to it.
Given the extent of the waste and pollution, it is important to reduce the use and thus the negative impacts of plastics. However, it is hard to overlook the benefits of plastics in daily applications. The use of plastic has reduced fuel consumption by reducing weight of certain car parts, it has provided lighter alternatives for packaging, and it is used for insulating houses and for renewables. Plastics are integrated into our society, but it is necessary to find alternatives that aren’t as harmful to the environment, animals, and humans. More people are finding product alternatives to reduce the amount of plastic in their daily lives. However, this would not be a possibility with low demands. Many startups and organisations are coming up with innovations to replace plastic with material that are more environmentally friendly. For example, researchers at Wageningen UR have already developed a cheap and sustainable alternative for plastic bags using fermented seaweed and it has been dubbed the ‘plastic’ of the future. There are also alternatives for other single use plastics, such as air carbon. It is vital to find cheap alternatives so that they can be viable solutions. As demand rises, the market has to deliver, and so R&D effort tend to increase.
Furthermore, there are many organisations to be found locally and around the world that work on recycling plastic as well. A Rotterdam based studio called The New Raw turns household plastic waste into filament that can be used for 3D printing, through this they aim to create furniture, first of their prototype being a XXX bench for the Municipality of Amsterdam. Another Netherlands based company is Plastic Whale, they do ‘plastic-fishing’ in the canals of Amsterdam to create and sell furniture from the waste they ‘catch’. Moreover, there are also initiatives that create replacements for disposable cutlery and plastic bags from India and Cambodia respectively, using edible materials such as grains and cassava root.
Nonetheless, although there are numerous alternatives brought about due to increasing demands, there are also effects found on businesses and governing bodies. On 28th May 2018, the EU announced plans to ban plastic waste and create a circular plastic economy. And on 6th June 2018, The Indian Prime Minister declared that they would ban all single use plastic by 2022. This was followed by several businesses such as IKEA, Subway, McDonalds, and Burger King sharing their plans on replacing single use plastics in their products and packaging.
Although the plastic problem has been known for years, it recently gained traction through increased media involvement and discourse, which finally brought the issue to the forefront, with many championing the cause. The public mobilisation for action was immensely facilitated by social media platforms to increase awareness globally. With regards to causes such as this one, it is important to take public action over and above personal behavioural changes to create a significant impact on tackling such issues, so that all stakeholders are involved and the change is made at a greater and more integrated level. Therefore, in this increasingly connected world, environmental issues have gained a platform that can possibly allow for progress in the right direction. After all, public action makes a difference.