We are living in the Plastic Age. While there’s no doubt that plastic has many advantages, it’s also having a grave environmental impact. Turning the situation around requires acts of courage, and we can all play a part. In Amsterdam, at least two local organizations are already making waves.
Within the time span of human existence, widespread plastic use is a very new phenomenon. Plastic was only developed and commercially introduced during the 19th and 20th centuries. It took the world by storm with its versatility and convenience, and with benefits virtually unmatched by any other material.
Plastic is light, easily molded, extremely durable and inexpensive. It can guard against contamination, making it invaluable in sterile environments, like hospitals and laboratories. It is great for storing food and beverages, as it can preserve flavour and freshness, and withstand shipping and storage pressures as well as a wide range of operating temperatures. It is strong, corrosion resistant, bio-inert, and offers high thermal/electrical insulation. In short, plastic is a wonder product.
Imagine trying to go a day without using or coming into contact with plastic. It’s virtually impossible!
While plastics designed for long-term use certainly have their place, single-use disposables, such as takeaway food containers, packaging materials, drinking straws, plastic bags, bottles, plates and cups, are proving to be an environmental challenge that may well lead to environmental disaster. We are churning through these items at a staggering rate. Over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide; that’s about 2 million plastic bags every minute! Now think of plastic bottles, cups and straws, on top of that.
While some plastic is recycled, research shows that the amount is insufficient. Only 9% of plastic waste generated in the US in 2012 was recovered for recycling.
So where does non-recycled plastic waste end up?
A lot of plastic waste goes to landfill and some gets incinerated, neither of which are sustainable options. Worryingly, a lot ends up in marine environments.
Through studying coastal countries, Jambeck et al. estimated that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste entered the ocean in 2010 alone. That’s the equivalent weight of more than 18,000 Boeing 747 aircraft at full capacity! Scientists estimate that every square mile of ocean contains approximately 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.
This is bad news because plastic takes a long time to biodegrade: up to 1,000 years for a single plastic bag. So your grocery bag may hang around longer than you, your grandchildren, or even your great grandchildren! Wreaking havoc on the environment and various creatures as it goes. Figures suggest marine plastic kills approximately 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million seabirds annually.
Plastic does photodegrade, breaking down into smaller and smaller fragments. Unfortunately, these fragments readily absorb chemical toxins from the water around them, turning them into concentrated toxic pieces, which marine life mistakes for food. Marine creatures feed on these toxic plastics, and then we humans eat those marine creatures, contaminating ourselves. The world’s fish stocks are increasingly suffering from plastic ingestion.
Additionally, researchers are finding plastic in our oceans from sources many would never have considered! Plastic fibers from our clothes get washed down the drain with every laundry load. As well as plastic microbeads — the tiny granules used in hundreds of personal care products, including toothpaste, shaving cream, shower gel and exfoliating scrubs. Both products are too small to be captured by our wastewater filtration systems, or be cleaned out of the oceans.
Feeling overwhelmed? Well here’s some good news…
Amsterdammers on the case
Some inspiring Amsterdammers have dedicated their careers to tackling the marine plastic challenge.
Making overfishing a good thing
As an Amsterdam dweller or visitor, you’ve probably noticed plastic bottles and waste in our famous canals. One local organization has a very creative solution to this problem.
The team at Plastic Whale leads volunteers on fishing expeditions to collect waste plastic from the canals; creating value from this waste by upcycling it into traditional ‘sloop’ boats.
So far, Plastic Whale has collected more than 35,000 plastic bottles, over 500 rubbish-bags of other plastic waste and have made three boats for their growing fleet!
These boats, dubbed ‘Plastic Whales’ are completely electric and run on 50% solar energy. You can even rent one for a unique day out on the canals, or a fishing expedition with friends, family or colleagues.
Plastic Whale founder, Marius Smit, was struck by the amount of marine plastic waste he encountered whilst traveling the world in 2002, and wanted to do something about it. Back in the Netherlands a few years later he came up with the idea to build a boat from collected plastic. This proved to be a challenging project, and in 2010 he almost gave up entirely! Ultimately, he persevered in his quest and successfully engaged great amounts of support through online crowdsourcing.
Marius emphasises the importance of having faith in your idea, yourself and others, as well as belief in the power of doing. His advice to others wanting to make a difference is:
“Don’t aim for perfection, just start with an attainable goal and maintain focus.”
Beating the Microbead
Another local Amsterdam NGO on the case is the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF).
They’ve had great success with their Beat the Microbead campaign — a grassroots campaign that puts the power in the hands of the consumer, with an app that allows consumers to scan personal care products to check for the presence of microbeads.
Following its launch, Dutch companies Rituals, De Tuinen, Etos, Hema, Kruidvat & Trekpleister almost immediately began to phase out microbeads from their products. Multinational companies Unilever, L’Oréal, Colgate/Palmolive, Beiersdorf, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have also pledged to stop their use. By the end of 2014, 62 NGO’s in 31 countries were supporting Beat the Microbead.
PSF also initiated the Plastic Soup Lab to connect innovators with potential investors.
Founder Maria Westerbos encourages taking a positive approach to complex problems for permanent change, highlighting that:
“Change is difficult…but the one who takes the lead now, will later be at the head of the game, and that could be you, or me.”
More acts of courage are needed
Marine plastic pollution is just one of several environmental concerns we are currently facing.
Kumi Naidoo, International Executive Director of Greenpeace, believes:
“The biggest challenge we have in trying to address the challenges that humanity faces today…is for us to believe that in fact, change is actually possible.
We need to exhibit high levels of personal courage. Courage supported by a belief that each of our contributions efforts and sacrifices will deliver the change that is necessary.
Marius Smit and Maria Westerbos have proved that these acts of courage do pay off.
From acts as small as taking a reusable shopping bag to the grocery store, to starting an organisation, we can all make a positive contribution. Even small, simple changes can make a big difference. We just need a few more acts of courage.
 Earth Policy Institute
 United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Header image: “Lots of bottled water”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lots_of_bottled_water.JPG#/media/File:Lots_of_bottled_water.JPG
The Truth About Plastic Infographic
Put down the Plastic Infographic
Written by Jane McPhee
Categorized as Big Question Column.
Originally published at tedx.amsterdam on October 8, 2015.