An article by Ben Prior, CEO at Earthworm
“The painful irony is that the rubbish we don’t want near us might actually end up inside us.” — Ben Prior
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a major environmental problem, yet, in the context of the many warnings we’ve had over the last decade as to the damage we are doing to our planet, it seems perfectly in keeping with the times. Except, of course, that it’s not even new. Scientists have been officially monitoring its growth since the 1970s.
But new or not, the GPGP exists right now, and despite our best efforts to look the other way, it floats and sinks and bobs as a grim manifestation of the reality of how we treat our oceans. It’s both a reminder and a consequence of the unavoidable fact that there is still no coherent idea of what to do with plastic long term, or how to use less of it.
For those who may not have heard of it, and those who have heard the name without necessarily knowing the facts, it’s a sprawling mass of plastic and assorted discarded rubbish which has gravitated towards a location somewhere between Hawaii and California. The precise location and shape are constantly shifting, but the patch itself primarily consists of buoyant, floating plastics and smaller, less visible, microplastics which have been degraded by the effects of sun, waves and marine life.
Three times the size of France
The scale of it is frightening. Data from a major study in 2015 by Ocean Cleanup found the GPGP to be at least 1.6 million square kilometres, or three times the size of France. And that’s surface area rather than volume. It is estimated to consist of approximately 1.8 trillion bits of plastic weighing over 80,000 tonnes. Now, over three years later, with eight million tonnes of new plastic entering the oceans every year, all of these figures will undoubtedly be bigger.
“The fact that you can break down that 1.8 trillion figure into approximately 250 bits of plastic per person is a much easier statistic to comprehend — and therefore much less easy to ignore.” — Ben Prior
So where to start with data like that? Well, perhaps it’s by honing in on the stats that are best able to bring it back down to a more relatable, accessible level. Putting aside the obvious scientific importance of knowing the literal scale of the problem, the social value of quantifying something that most people will never actually see in numbers, and that most people will never actually have to deal with, is debatable. Frankly, it’s unlikely to make the threat that GPGP signifies seem real enough to change behaviour in the way it needs to.
The human impact of a collective problem
However, there are stats out there that might. For example, the fact that you can break down that 1.8 trillion figure into approximately 250 bits of plastic per person is a much easier stat to comprehend — and therefore much less easy to ignore. It highlights the individual dimensions of a collective problem. It encourages you to think about your own personal agency in creating the sort of global environmental horrors that GPGP typifies.
Likewise, there needs to be more clarity in the common understanding of consequence. There needs to be a clearer and more immediate answer to the question ‘so what’? History has shown that warnings around potential future environmental catastrophes don’t seem to cut through, even as general awareness of such issues has grown. It could be because people naturally recoil away from uncomfortable truths, or maybe because it creates a feeling of futility and disempowerment, but regardless, contributory behaviours just aren’t changing quickly enough.
In relation to the GPGP, the answer to the ‘so what’ question is not just the obvious damage to the marine ecosystem, but the human impact upon the food chain. If fish and marine mammals eat the plastic (which we know they do) and humans eat the fish and marine mammals, then humans will eventually also consume that same plastic. And as those quantities build up over time, we’d be slowly poisoned, just as the rest of the food chain beneath us will. As consequences go, it doesn’t get much more direct than that, not to mention the painful irony that the rubbish we don’t want near us might actually end up inside us.
The importance of behavioural change
Of course, you might be wondering why I’m not talking more about governmental and corporate action to address this issue. After all, it’s those transnational operations that have the biggest opportunity to address major environmental issues in ways that will enforce change. But here’s the thing. The former have elections to win; the latter have money to make. And generally speaking, neither is willing to put either in jeopardy for environmental reasons. Our current environmental situation — GPGP and all — is the only proof you need of that truth.
Which leaves me looking at the potential of everyday people. If somehow attitudes and behaviour around the consumption and usage of plastics could be changed, then aside from the instant positive environmental impact that would have, governments and businesses would be compelled to listen. If they wanted to stay in power or continue to make money, they’d have no choice. The power — as difficult as it is to mobilise — is ultimately with the people. Distant as it might seem, the vicious circle of apathy that defines the current global approach to environmental issues, does still have the potential to become a virtuous circle, in which both state and individual push each to develop a more sustainable relationship with the world we live in.
When you suddenly remind yourself of the realities of the GPGP, that optimism runs the risk of sounding a bit fanciful. Delusional, even. But if we — and in that ‘we’ I include all those dedicated to fighting the issues of pollution and climate change, whether affiliated to an organisation or not — can convincingly democratise and domesticate an environmental consciousness within everyday decisions, then there genuinely is hope. At the risk of sounding clichéd, we all need to be part of that solution.
“Far more thought needs to be given to the longevity of a product versus the cost of the environment of making it. Simply put — using plastic for single use is destructive.” — Ben Prior, CEO at Earthworm
Where do we start?
So, to go back to an earlier question: where do you start with the GPGP? Well, you start, simply enough, with you. Five tips on what we can do to help reduce the GPGP include:
- Support our children in striking. We owe them that much
- Make politicians realise that we’ve had enough by lobbying your local MP
- Join groups like 38 Degrees to help give individuals a platform to vocalise their concern and let your voice be heard
- Keep recycling
- We understand that it’s hard to decipher, but avoiding products in packaging that cannot be recycled is a small step that will make a huge difference.
Recycling is just one side of the equation. The onus really must be on companies to change the way that they strive for growth above concerns about the environment. It’s not just the packaging, but the products themselves — everything from toys to clothes. We simply do not need to consume the way that we currently do, and it’s not fair to pass the blame onto the consumer. Far more thought needs to be given to the longevity of a product versus the cost of the environment of making it. Simply put — using plastic for single use is destructive. We greatly admire the work of Ellen MacArthur, whose organisation, the New Plastics Economy, highlights the issue with their #lineinthesand campaign. They aim to tackle the problem at the source — directly with the manufacturers. So far 250 businesses, governments and other organisations have signed up to a global commitment to ‘Eliminate, Innovate, Circulate’.
Finally, we need more policy to encourage waste to be dealt with at source rather than exported abroad, for example, a nationwide standardised waste collection that makes it clear what can be recycled and what can’t. British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, is at least starting along this path with his latest Waste Strategy. However, more legislation is needed to curb the wanton use of plastics, such as punitive financial penalties for companies who do not comply with the tighter regulation.
While the GPGP is nothing new, the sense of urgency to take action has never been greater. Whether it is taking small steps to reduce plastic usage in your home, joining a platform to vocalise concerns or encouraging the government to create more legislation, there has never been more urgency for the public, companies and the government to take a stand, together.
After spending years working in corporate finance and witnessing greed trump responsibility, Ben Prior created environmental fund manager Earthworm to offer ethically-conscious investment options for those seeking smart investment without leaving their ethics at the door. The fund focuses on projects in the power, waste, food and property sectors, and Ben is building out an offering to encourage the everyday investor. Twitter: @BenPrior17
This article was published in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global South. Subscribe to The Beam Magazine to read more.