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Opinion: If we don't act now on plastic pollution, we will run out of choices

Lyndsey O’Connell of the Sick of Plastic campaign outlines just how destructive this material is and offers simple ways to avoid using it.

Lyndsey O’Connell

Updated Oct 22nd 2021, 2:10 PM

GONE ARE THE days when people had to be convinced about a plastic crisis. Nowadays, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t read about microplastics in the ocean and their horrific impact on marine animals.

Plastic pollution isn’t something we can ignore anymore. It’s right there, in front of our eyes. We could blame Covid, the rise of takeaways during lockdown, or a lack of bins. None of these, however, can explain why plastic production is set to double by 2030.

A research team in NUIG recently estimated that a third of waste shipped out of Ireland for recycling will not be recycled and gave a conservative estimate that 3% of plastic waste from Ireland ends up in the marine environment. Given that we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic per annum as a nation, that’s nine million tonnes of Irish plastic waste being tipped into the sea every year.

Pervasiveness of plastics

The insidious nature of this man-made material is so profound that microplastics have been recorded in the depths of the Marianna Trench and as high up as the northern reaches of Mount Everest.

The effects of plastic pollution on the marine environment are well documented, but it’s not just floating islands of plastic debris three times the size of France that we have to worry about. Our oceans act as a carbon sink. In fact, they store up to half of all CO2 produced by mankind in the last two centuries. In the delicate dance of biological chain reaction, algae are mistaking plastic debris as food and are failing to ingest the required carbon molecules floating on top of the water.

This carbon is not getting trapped by the algae, therefore it is not being eaten by the Salps (who ingest algae) and popped onto the sea floor where it is stored, out and away from our atmosphere.

Instead, it is being re-released. This study conducted by NUIG and UCC highlights how marine litter and microplastics may affect animals and even ecosystems in ways not yet considered.

Highlighting the issue

We at the Sick of Plastic campaign have partnered with SSE Airtricity to bring the National Geographic Society’s spectacular Planet or Plastic? travelling photographic exhibition to Dublin for the first time. The exhibition sheds light on the impact plastic is having on our environment, our seas and oceans and marine life.

plastic1 Source: Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker is a photographer, whose work features in the exhibition. She has documented the effects of plastic pollution in her work. This image of hundreds of pieces of colourful plastic laid out in a decorative pattern, is almost beautiful in its symmetry. That is until you read that this is fact the remnants of an infant seagulls stomach which had perished due to ingesting so much plastic waste.

‘The future of plastic is in the trash can’, a quote from a plastics industry leader – Lloyd Stouffer in the mid-1950s. He was referring to the endless cash cow that is plastics since our culture is one of throwaway instead of reuse. And he was right.

As long as we are putting it into our bins, then the oil and gas will continue to be extracted, the chemical companies will keep making toxic chemicals to mix with it and the single use, poor-quality plastics that we have come to resent will just keep on coming. It is a business plan, and there has been little or no regulation of the industry.

It wasn’t too long ago that plastic wasn’t so prevalent. Does anyone remember glass milk bottles? Loose fruit and vegetables? We’ve become accustomed to the slightly irritating and bin loading middle man. But our green bins have had enough. Who else is piling their heaviest kids onto their recyclable mound every other week, just to get a bit more space for the recent supermarket deluge of plastic packaging?

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05_HofmanSeahorse__DSC8242_Justin Hofman To ride ocean currents, seahorses clutch drifting seagrass or other natural debris with their tails. In the polluted waters off the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, this seahorse latched onto a plastic cotton swab instead—“a photo I wish didn’t exist,” says photographer Justin Hofman Source: Justin Hofman

So what should be done? Recycle more? No. Make less! Recycling is not the answer, it’s only one small part of the overall solution.

Only 9% of all the plastic that’s ever been produced has been recycled and at that, a piece of plastic can only be recycled a handful of times before it breaks down and has to be incinerated or landfilled.

However, there are solutions, especially at a policy level, that would drastically reduce the amount of plastic we are producing here in Ireland (and no, adding soft plastic to the recycling list is not one of them):

  • We need refill targets for our supermarkets. France has introduced legislation that requires, by 2030, 20% of the floor surface of shops larger than 400 square metres must be fitted with refill systems. Smaller shops, off-licenses, cosmetics stores and perfume shops are exempt. So what would that look like? Well, just like your reusable shopping bags, you’ll bring along your own pasta, or rice, or porridge containers, or whatever staples of food staples you buy regularly and simply refill. Instead of buying these products and removing the packaging as soon as you get home, you buy them loose and for less too (as they are bought in bulk).
  • Restrict the use of some single-use packaging formats for certain applications (e.g. vegetables and fruits wrappers), in particular where reusable products or systems are widely available or consumer goods can be handled safely without packaging.
  • Mandatory corporate reporting on plastic reduction should be introduced. We need our shops and businesses to be 100% transparent about the amount of plastic they are producing. This should be publicly documented annually.
  • Financial support for Reuse infrastructure: Currently, the Irish grocery sector does not have the infrastructure needed to support a robust, reuse-focused system. Therefore, funding for infrastructure provision must be prioritised.

Our Sick of Plastic campaign is very aware of the fact that the solutions have to be top-down (policy) and bottom-up (consumer-driven). We all have a personal responsibility to effectively manage our own waste.

P3292201 A facemask ashore on Sobieszewo Island along the Baltic Sea, in northern Poland. Because disposable face masks and other pieces of personal protective equipment typically contain plastics, they aren’t recyclable or compostable. Source: Jakub Rybicki

While we call on industry to implement packaging-free solutions and reusable options, we ask that anyone who has had enough of plastic please use their consumer power to make a difference. In Ireland, there are shops that are ‘zero waste’ or ‘packaging free’. There may well be one near you.

Lyndsey O’Connell is the campaign leader of the Sick of Plastic campaign. If you would like to know more, the National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic? exhibition on Harbour Plaza, Dún Laoghaire runs until 11 November and The Promenade, Skerries 15 November to 15 December. Entry is free, it’s outdoors and fun for all the family. The exhibition is also part of SSE Airtricity’s programme of events as a Principal Partner of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the crucial gathering of world leaders to address the impact of climate change on our planet.

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Lyndsey O’Connell

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