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13 April 2018

Working towards the End of Plastic

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On the stairs of the bilingual school of Draschestrasse, in Vienna, Austria, hangs an impressive five-metre whale made of plastic waste. The sculpture, the work of a group of 12-year-old students under the direction of their art teacher, serves as a symbol to draw attention to the plastics that pollute the oceans of the Earth at a rate of more than eight million tons per year, according to data from the Plastic Oceans Foundation. Some 269,000 tons of garbage float in the seas, mostly plastics, which a myriad of marine creatures ingest, according to a recent review, in the form of hundreds or thousands of fragments a day.

Last March, a study discovered that the so-called garbage patch of the Pacific—a kind of vortex where marine currents converge—accumulates up to 16 times more plastic waste than was estimated so far, covering an area that triples that of France and whose increase is exponential. In May 2017, media from all over the planet published the video recorded by two researchers on one of the most remote islands in the world, Henderson atoll in the Pitcairn archipelago. What should be a tropical paradise was a desolate trash heap where the waves had deposited more than 17 tons of plastic rubbish.

Plastic waste in Henderson atoll, in one of the most remote islands in the world. Credit: IMAS – Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies

On the occasion of the meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly held in Nairobi (Kenya) last December, the director of the UN’s oceans programs, Lisa Emelia Svensson, described the plastic pollution of the oceans as a “planetary crisis.” According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), at the current rate of pollution, by 2050 the terrestrial oceans will contain more plastic than fish.

The CleanSeas campaign

The problem of plastic pollution, much of which ends up in the oceans, now occupies a visible place on the international agenda. But as the expert from the University of Tasmania, Marcus Haward, pointed out last February in the journal Nature Communications, “the challenge in addressing marine plastic pollution reflects the complexity of a multi-faceted problem.” The Nairobi summit produced a consensual ministerial declaration that includes among its objectives the fight against plastic pollution, but the solutions must involve governments, industry and consumers.

At the level of governments, 39 nations are already adhering to the #CleanSeas campaign from the UN, which seeks to reduce the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastics. In several countries there are restrictions on disposable plastic bags, an initiative joined by those of the retail chains that promote reusable bags. However, some experts are questioning the effectiveness of these measures. As pointed out by Professor Gary Mortimer of the University of Technology of Queensland (Australia), reusable bags are often thrown away and only around 30% are recycled.

In several countries there are restrictions on disposable plastic bags. Credit: dronepicr

Recycling is also a thorny issue. According to Greenpeace, government campaigns have managed to recycle up to 80% of plastic bottles and containers in certain European regions. However, some experts warn that the fact that these plastics are used to make other objects means that, in many cases, they will end up in landfills and from there a large part will move into waterways and seas.

Furthermore, China, the world’s leading destination for recycling plastic, has recently increased its quality requirements for the importation of these materials, which will force many countries to take on the responsibility for recycling that they used to divert to China.

It is possible to live without plastic

For all these reasons, entities such as the UN insist on the need to attack the root of the problem by reducing production, which involves looking for alternatives to plastic and decreasing demand. Currently, every 1.98 seconds the world produces 17 tons of plastic, the quantity that researchers found on Henderson Island. And according to a 2017 study, 79% of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic discarded in the last 60 years has ended up in landfills or in nature, a volume that could double by the middle of the century.

Some innovative initiatives are trying to show that it is possible to live without plastic. Last February, an Ekoplaza supermarket in Amsterdam (Netherlands) opened a section with 700 products without plastic, replacing it with glass, metal, cardboard and biodegradable substitutes like cellulose bioplastics. The chain hopes to extend the initiative to its 74 stores throughout this year. Meanwhile, the airline Ryanair has adopted the commitment to eliminate non-recyclable plastic in all its operations by 2023, while other large consumers of plastic, such as Coca-Cola and Starbucks, have begun to launch timid initiatives.

Peder Hill, a teacher at the Viennese school of Draschestrasse, made a plastic whale with his students, as part of Kids Save Ocean project. Credit: “Kids Save Ocean”

But at the base of everything is the key component: individual citizens, especially those who will suffer the future consequences of plastic pollution. This idea was what motivated the California biologist and surfer Peder Hill, a teacher at the Viennese school of Draschestrasse, to invite his students to make the plastic whale. But it’s just the tip of a hopeful iceberg: Hill has created the Kids Save Ocean project in order to “give kids all over the world a powerful voice about the environment,” he tells OpenMind.

That voice will sound on June 22, when Kids Save Ocean holds the first Clean Oceans Children’s Summit in the United Nations building in Vienna. The plastic whale will also be exhibited at the Austrian headquarters of the UN in June, on World Environment Day, and from 2020 it will be installed in the Haus des Meeres, the largest aquarium in Austria. “When it comes to the global environment, adults make all the decisions, but it’s kids who will have to live with the consequences and have the most to lose,” says Hill. “They look much further ahead. And they deserve a voice.”

Javier Yanes


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