Right now an estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic – everything from plastic bottles and bags to microbeads – end up in our oceans each year.
2007-17: Reflections on a Decade of Waste
I used to think that the waste I produced as a consumer was someone else’s problem. Because that’s what the garbage industry does, right? They take it away and… Sure, some of it ends up in a landfill and the rest gets processed for recycling. That’s not that bad, is it? I also didn’t think I mattered in the grand scheme of things. My one black bin bag a week. What difference did that make?
For many years, concern over waste pretty much never entered my thoughts. In a waiting room, I’d pick up one of those small plastic cups, fill it up with water and after a few sips throw it away without even thinking twice. Sometimes I’d throw paper, glass, and food together in the same bin and also not think anything of it. Such was my luxury life. Not my problem, man.
This went on for a while until I started to notice things like public general waste bins replaced with recycling bins in the malls and on the beach. But what’s the point? I thought, seeing how most people ignored the labeling and threw their waste into any of the bins.
Back then, I was far more concerned about the amount of water and energy I was using than the waste I was producing. Everywhere I kept hearing how there isn’t enough water and we all need to conserve as much as possible. TV commercials were all about educating the public to unplug their chargers and turn off the lights. Nothing about plastic.
The messaging worked. All of a sudden, hearing a tap running for no reason would make me tense up like in a dentist’s chair, just make it stop. All of a sudden, I started to think that maybe I could make a difference.
When I was 23, I bought two bins for my new flat, one for recyclable waste, the other for general waste. Even though my parents have always made an effort to recycle paper, card, glass and plastic bottles, they have also always cleaned their kitchen after cooking and changed their bed sheets every week; all habits I was now learning to do for myself.
At first, I felt relieved. I was doing my part, I was recycling. But then the feeling went away as I realized: 1. I wasn’t recycling enough. 2. I’d been doing it wrong. It’s not enough to throw your trash into two separate bins. You have to know what can and cannot be recycled, where and how. Because not all plastic is recyclable. Or it is, but it’s too expensive, so many councils only recycle certain types. How was I supposed to know? I still felt it was more of a government and producer problem than mine, the consumer.
One day I watched a video about an American girl living a zero-waste life. What she couldn’t recycle fit inside a single mason jar. My initial reaction was that she must be a hippie, and with a high degree of self-importance to think her zero-waste lifestyle is going to make any difference. In hindsight, my reaction was classic change aversion to someone living a completely different lifestyle to the one I was accustomed to.
2017: A Personal and Public Turning Point
In October 2017, the BBC first aired Blue Planet II on UK television, a documentary highlighting the problem of plastic in the seas. The documentary came out after the supermarkets implemented 5p and 10p charges for plastic bags. I remember thinking, that’s great. Since for years, I didn’t even know these bags weren’t recyclable.
Although I haven’t watched the documentary myself yet, I’ve seen lots of articles about the far-reaching, eye-opening impact it’s had. By now, I’d already heard and seen a lot of disturbing things mostly on social media about plastic in the oceans. The plastic found in the stomachs of animals from seagulls to whales. That photo of a deformed turtle stuck in a plastic ring that went viral.
Then there was this sudden, huge wave of information and public outrage about our plastic overconsumption. Like some kind of public awakening. In December, the UN called it a ‘planetary crisis’. I found out that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, discovered back in 1997, is now the largest of five ocean garbage patches. I honestly didn’t know it was this bad, which you can’t help but think looks like one hell of a coverup.
That’s when I started thinking about what I could do. Instead of putting the plastic and things that I can’t put in my recycling bin in the general waste, I started collecting it instead. 8 pairs of plastic 3D cinema glasses from years ago. Toothpaste tubes, old carrier bags, all sorts of thin plastic packaging from toiletry products to food, and any plastic film or cling film. Crisp packets, wet wipes, remembering how many packets I used to go through when I was a student. Receipts, takeaway coffee cups. I filled a whole bag with it, a long way away from that girl’s mason jar.
Then I found myself in a waiting room again. Little plastic cups with half-drank discarded water dotted around the room. A bin beside the water tank, full of plastic cups that had probably been used for no longer than a minute. I started to panic at the thought of how many waiting rooms must exist in the world. It felt like that moment in They Live when the protagonist puts on these special sunglasses and can suddenly see that he is surrounded by aliens disguised as humans – or something equally terrifying.
My New Hero: Lauren Singer
Last night, I saw another video (below) about that same zero-waste girl. Her name is Lauren Singer and she’s since started a zero-waste movement. An actual movement. That’s huge! She also has a shop in NYC called Package Free, selling zero-waste products making it as practical as possible for New Yorkers to follow her lead. She’s also now my hero and I feel ashamed for ever thinking anything less of her.
I want to be more like Lauren. To be able to take my containers to the store and refill them with product rather than keep buying them in new packages that just end up in the bin. I don’t only want to have this option, I want it to be the only option, and firmly believe that is how the future will look.
The time for ignorant thinking about what happens to our waste and that what we do doesn’t matter is long past. In order to hold the producers and governments accountable, we have to demand it. For that, we are also responsible and accountable.
In the video above, Lauren says she thinks the consumer shouldn’t be responsible for their waste. But if producers don’t take responsibility, that makes us responsible by default. So what she’s saying is that we can take some of the pressure off ourselves by demanding more from the brands we buy from.
The zero waste lifestyle goes beyond trash. It’s a story about what we truly value. — Andrea Sanders, Founder of Be Zero
It’s true that plastic has taken a while to enter into my personal agenda, and maybe yours too. But it’s worth remembering that it’s not just plastic that’s the problem. As we reach 8 billion people on this planet, we can no longer pretend that our choices don’t matter. We each have a footprint in everything we do, from clothes to carbon emissions, waste and use of scarce, finite resources. Supply and demand are not independent. The actions of every one of us do matter.
Zero waste doesn’t mean producing or consuming nothing. It’s about carefully and intentionally designing, producing, and consuming without waste as an end product. — BeZero.org
I’m seeing some positive changes. For example, on honeymoon in Kauai, I was really impressed with the Grand Hyatt. They give each guest a reusable branded water bottle to use during their stay, with fresh water filling stations throughout the hotel. You carry it with you to the pool and then take it back to the room. As a result, we didn’t use a single disposable water bottle (or plastic cup!) during our very hot Kauai trip.
But more needs to be done. By contrast, the supposed eco-friendly Travaasa Hana in Maui only had teeny tiny water bottles enough for 3-4 big sips for guests during our stay. We were shocked to see the hotel hand out 5 of these to a thirsty guest. They said it was a stock problem, as they waited days for larger water bottles to arrive. It’s difficult and all too tempting when there are no practical alternatives.
3 Practical Things You Can Do!
1. Understand the problem
Read up, research and educate yourself and others about today’s most pressing environmental and sustainability issues. If what you discover doesn’t give you the heebie-jeebies, you still don’t get it. Try watching Blue Planet II or do some more research. When you start thinking things like oh my fucking god what the fuck, that means you got it.
2. See what you can do
Lauren Singer’s blog Trash is for Tossers is a great resource for inspiration and tips on how to start reducing your waste. Like this article, 13 Easy Zero Waste Resolutions You Can Make For 2018. Or check out her Youtube channel. Remember, Lauren didn’t become waste-free overnight and probably nor will you. But you can make a start.
3. Get involved in the bigger picture
As well as individual steps, have your say in the wider community. Sign up to petitions. Write to your favourite brands or supermarkets. Take a plastics pledge, volunteer, or help fund some of today’s most innovative solutions.
How will you Take Action? Ideas from the BeZero.org Pledge
Refuse all single-use plastics when possible
Refuse plastic straws in drinks
Carry my own reusables
Bring my own cup/mug for coffee or drinks
Bring my grocery and produce bags to the market
Take ownership of my things by repairing or mending
Eating less meat and dairy
Community sharing programs and gardens
Get active in local government
All of the above!