The microplastic particles in the world’s oceans “now outnumber stars in our galaxy”. That was the stark, somber warning made by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during a message to mark World Environment Day on Tuesday 5 June.
According to Guterres, a staggering eight million tons of plastic waste end up in our oceans every year, and “from remote islands, to the Artic, nowhere is untouched”.
Unless something drastic is done to address the amount of harmful plastic waste that is swamping our planet, by 2050, our oceans will have more plastic than fish. At that point we may have crossed the Rubicon in terms of being able to retrieve the situation.
Since it was first celebrated back in 1974, World Environment Day has helped raise awareness and generate political momentum around global environmental concerns. It is poignant that Guterres chose this year to focus on the impact of plastic packaging on the world’s oceans, a reality that highlights just how dire the situation has become.
Indeed, at Berlin’s Falling Wall conference in November last year, Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania dramatically highlighted the problem with plastic.
She showed images of the once pristine beaches on uninhabited Henderson Island in the south Pacific (one of the most remote places on earth) that revealed how it was now littered with plastic debris - an estimated 37 million pieces, weighing 18 tonnes.
Plastic bottles are one of the worst offenders, especially those made with polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. These nearly indestructible petroleum-based plastics don’t decompose in the same way organic material does and can hang around on our planet indefinitely.
A change in purchasing habits can make a huge difference
It raises the question, is there any hope for the future?
The answer is yes, but only if people make a conscientious effort to recycle the plastic they use and consider switching to more environmentally-friendly alternatives.
For example, rather than buying a bottle of water in a single-use container, switch to a reusable bottle instead. Some of the ones on the market today even come with replaceable carbon filters that remove chlorine and organic contaminants, so people have less cause to worry about the water they are drinking.
Other ways to reduce plastic waste include:
- Switch a disposable coffee cup for a travel coffee mug
- Switch plastic bags for reusable cloth bags
- Switch coffee pods for a pot of coffee
- Switch plastic straws for reusable bamboo ones
- Switch traditional balloons for eco-friendly decorations
Sadly, though, research shows that most people are still happy to purchase disposable plastic bottles of water.
According to a YouGov survey of more than 2,000 people conducted for the charity Keep Britain Tidy, only a third of the population drink from reusable bottles when out and about. Many people are too focussed on the ‘hassle’ of switching, while 50% of those who do own a reusable bottle still buy bottled water because they simply forget to take their reusable bottle with them.
However, the survey did reveal some positive news for businesses, with 62% of respondents saying they would be more encouraged to use businesses that allowed them to refill a reusable bottle instead of a competitor that didn’t.