Countries Failed To Unite Against Plastic Crisis—But Here's Why *Your* Action Will Matter

March 26, 2019

Earlier this month, a United Nations conference in Kenya aimed to come up with a global response to plastic crisis. While a number of countries as diverse as Norway, Japan, Sri Lanka, Senegal, and Philippines all pushed for a legally binding agreement against ocean plastic and microplastics, a small group of nations led by the U.S. blocked the most accountable proposal. The compromise reached was a series of non-binding proposals, including reducing plastic litter from ships. Instead of phasing out single-use plastics by 2025 as originally proposed, the final statement only suggests “significantly reducing single-use plastic by 2030.”

Why would the U.S. spearhead the sabotaging of the plastic clean-up? Fossil oil companies including Exxon and Shell have plunged more than $180 billion since 2010 into facilities turning petrochemical into plastic goods. They are projected to continue making billions of dollars more in investments and produce 40% more plastic over the next decade, according to experts. The very same industry interests that have launched our climate change crisis are also responsible for the degradation of our planet that the UN Conference itself called, “Ocean Armageddon.”

It’s obvious that there are greater forces at play, that simply refusing a plastic straw is only an infinitesimal relief to a planet in distress. But Big Oil is not separate from individuals: in America, consumer spending accounts for 70% of economic activity. Through filling up at a gas station or buying plastic-wrapped snacks and beverages, we are Big Oil’s consumers—whether we like it or not.

For a problem as complex and gargantuan as this, it’s not enough to write/tweet to your elected officials just as it’s not enough to rely on individual actions. The fight against plastic has to come from all sides, and urgently. Already, the 8.3 billon tons of plastic that have been created since the 1950s have resulted in “a near permanent contamination of the natural environment,” according to scientists.

The biggest statement to Big Oil and their puppet legislators is not writing postcards while continuing to spend your hard-earned dollars on their products, but reducing demand of oil and plastic.

Car-less living is more possible than you think.

Walk, bike, or take public transportation as much as possible. Drive only when you have to. In many parts of the U.S., a car-less lifestyle is already very possible. I lived nearly a decade in NYC taking the subway and walking. In France I’ve been making the best use of the well-designed train and bus system that links every major and minor city. But when I go back to Portland, Oregon, a city with vast 8-lane highways chocked full of commuters every morning and evening, I plan on living in a walkable neighborhood and getting a ZipCar membership only for those special occasions. You will not only save the Earth carbon emissions, but also money, time, and peace of mind.

Stop eating seafood.

Many eco-minded consumers and influencers have advocated for sustainable seafood as an ethical choice. But in all practical senses, there may not be such a thing as “sustainable seafood.” According to a study in Scientific Reports, of the 79,000 tons of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage patch, fishing nets account for an astonishing 46%—and the majority of the remaining 54% consist of other fishing industry tools, ropes, oyster spacers, traps, crates, and baskets. Scientists were in fact surprised to discover that not more of the debris in the Garbage Patch originated from land use.

These fishing gear are both intentionally discarded and accidentally lost. The so-called ghostnets drifting through the oceans, ensnaring whales, seals, turtles, and other marine life.

The term “sustainable seafood” is effectively meaningless  given the amount of damage the fishing industry inflicts on the planet. It’s about as truthful as “sustainable oil” or “sustainable plastic.” Even the most conscious consumers have no way of policing how, how much, and where the fishing took place. The only way to truly protect ocean life is to not eat them.

Avoid plastic-packaged products.

This looks fresh and healthy—but after 2 minutes it’s headed to a landfill, the oceans, or an incinerator.

An untold amount of products that we use on a daily basis are wrapped in plastic. The best way to avoid them is to understand what you can do, and hold yourself accountable. Since China banned importing the world’s plastic waste, many U.S. and European recycling facilities have stopped accepting plastic in turn. Like “sustainable seafood,” “recycling plastic” is increasingly meaningless since most of it is being sent to landfill or incinerators, regardless of your intention.

Good news is that it is easy to dramatically reduce your plastic footprint. I recommend starting from one small thing you can give up. In spring 2017, I gave up plastic-bottled beverages such as coconut water and cold-pressed juices. This was followed by disposable coffee and plastic-wrapped snacks (such as protein bars) in December 2017, plus plastic-wrapped tofu, seitan, tahini, and other food items in spring 2018. For me, this was not a difficult transition. But there are a number of ways you can embrace low-waste lifestyle, from avoiding online shopping to shopping with a reusable tote to making your own household cleaning products out of a single soap (like Dr. Bronners) or a mix of baking soda and essential oils.

Make your voice heard.

By all means, write to your elected officials and/or Big Oil companies. But also, talk to your friends and family about why this is important, and what you’re doing to effect change.

How do you fight the fight against the plastic crisis? 

Related: Can’t Go Zero Waste? How To Do “Low Waste” Lifestyle and Feel So Much Better

I Went Plastic Free For A Week & It Was Eye-Opening 

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Photo: Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash


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