Ocean plastic waste getting you down? Bust through the Negativity Bias: Become a Problem Lover

A fixable reality, plastic ocean waste on a beach in Hawaii (Image credit: Jeremy McKane)

The United Nations estimates that at the current rate of pollution, by 2050, the ocean will be home to more plastic than fish. Studies have shown that nearly all salt is contaminated with micro plastics.

Humans have had an undeniable influence on every single other living organisms on this planet. We have dominated the land, polluted the air and oceans, and designed the world to work primarily for us, at the expense of many other species.

We have even managed to make space a dumping ground for our obsolete technology. So, what on Earth are we going to do about all of this?

Image of space junk orbiting Earth. Image: NASA

When you hear about these massive environmental issues like: ocean plastic waste, climate change, air pollution, and the mass die off of insects and pollinators critical to food production, how do you feel? Angry, indifferent, pessimistic, frightened, concerned, apathetic, exhausted?

Most of the messaging around critical environmental systems impacts are extremely negative, evoking doomsday and dystopian narratives. A recent study showed that many millennials believe that catastrophic climate change is unfixable, which begs the question: what impact has the negative framing of all the ‘bad things humans have done’ had on our collective ability to get shit done to fix the mess we are in?

This type of messaging triggers negativity bias, which is the predisposition for the human brain to focus on the negative side of something rather than the positive. This is an evolutionary trick that would have helped us survive in the distant past, but nowadays, it is easily manipulated by interests that wish to hold your attention or get you to click on something.

Negativity bias clouds our cognitive capacity to think of alternative actions, or ideas that may help evolve and solve the issues we face. It literally freezes our brain and provides motivation to avoid things rather than try to solve them.

Environmental problems are messy, big, chaotic and complex — they need dynamic and circular thinking to help understand and shift the status quo of them. But many people get overextended by such huge issues. They get angry and frustrated, which leads to increased apathy and a lot of blame.

Just google anything to do with the climate, and you’ll see some serious shit flinging around the topic of who did what and how, rather than what we can do to help reduce changes to the weather systems that regulate the Earth.

The same applies to the plastic waste epidemic (sorry, but it is out of control). We need to kick our addiction to plastic, not just clean the oceans (this is a band-aid solution), and redesign our service provisions systems so that they are circular.

Every minute, 1 million plastic bottles are purchased globally, we need to redesign the service of safe portable water delivery to address this mass consumption issue. (Image credit: Jeremy McKane)

Becoming a problem lover, not a problem avoider

If you want to help fix some of the systems failures I mentioned above, then the first thing one needs to do is think differently about the problem.

We can all learn to love problems, by literally busting through the negativity bias and tricking our brains into wanting to understand the issues rather than avoid them. To do this, you do need to suspend the need to solve the issues quickly or lay blame and instead, find ways of engaging with the information that will help you develop contributions that will change the status quo of the problem.

From a systems thinking perspective, there is no blame. All things are interconnected, and the dynamics within a system are constantly changing. Thus, you can intervene to help evolve it into a better direction. It’s harder to hold optimism in the wake of negativity than it is to give into the simplistic arguments that many people perpetuate to maintain an inertia around a big-world topic.

For example, take the issues of plastics suffocating the ocean. I recently heard the overwhelming statistic from the United Nations that we collectively contribute 8 million tons a year of plastics dumped into the seas. But much of the waste are micro plastics from tiny particles which we can’t see and which create a plastic haze (like air pollution) in the ocean.

And, the majority of these pollutants come from — wait for it — car tires (and second is the shedding of plastic fibers from washing our synthetic clothes). Roads are abrasive surfaces, and tires wear down — so where do all the tiny filaments of plastic go? Rain washes it off the flat black surfaces into the ocean and voila! Ocean plastic soup dinner for all the little fishes. And then who eats the fish? Right, we do — everything is interconnected.

So it’s not just plastic bottles and straws, but our entire modern industrial life is hurting the environment and by default us, all of us, because no human can live without nature.

Sadly, there are countless studies that show how micro plastics have permeated nearly every element of our food chain (e.g here, here and here) from seabirds to table salt. I’m sure when you hear all of this you start to think of your own health, and perhaps even fear the food that you trust. But what are we going to do about it? For many people, the relationship between individual actions and collective impacts (good or bad) is hard to fathom, especially given that so many of the narratives we encounter are extremely negative (yes I know I just added to this). What if when you hear this tragic reality, however, instead of allowing the negative emotions to repress it, you embrace the possibility of how you could contribute to solving it?

Solutions Focused

What if we collectively worked toward a common positive goal — not an unattainable utopian ideology, but a pragmatic and clear action set, like a future living environment that moves beyond our current linear system where we design products and services that create waste and pollution, to instead a future that is positive and post disposable?

In this case, we would all be working toward a shared future narrative that clearly states a positive objective — a future where we no longer prioritize and accept a disposable society. In this very near future, we design products, services, and systems to avoid the wasteful, single-use culture that has permeated so much of our lives and has resulted in countless negative feedback loops for us, the humans who created them to begin with.

Moving to a post disposable world requires the redesign of most service systems, but it also requires a shift in the way we value everyday materials and goods. This fits perfectly within the already rapidly growing Circular Economy movement.

A Post Disposable Future

Post Disposability is about making wasteful systems obsolete by designing products that have value across their entire life and throughout the supply chain. No more deflecting responsibility to other parts of the system — instead we design systems to fit within the biophysical limitations of the planet.

I have been into problem loving as a practice for most of my adult life. I am aggressively passionate about solving problems, especially ones that relate to social and environmental issues, partly because I care deeply about the ethics of our species, but also for self interest. I don’t want to live of a poisoned planet, as it will impact me and all the people I love.

If you get the chance to speak to an astronaut about what the experience of being outside of our planet is like, ask what seeing the fragility of Earth has on their perspective on life here for us all. This unique experience that only a few hundred people have had offers an entirely different perspective of what beauty, mystery, and vulnerability that this, the only life-giving planet known in all of the universe, has.

Recently, Pope Frances rang the International Space Station to speak with the astronauts currently aboard and Commander Randy Bresnik, a US Marine who flew combat missions during the Iraq War, said the following when asked what reflections he had on humanity from space:

“There are no borders, there is no conflict, it’s just peaceful…People cannot come up here and see the indescribable beauty of our Earth and not be touched in their souls. You see the thinness of the atmosphere, it makes you realize how fragile our existence here is,” (see full article here).

As much as I’m sure many of us would love to have this unique orbital perspective for ourselves, thankfully we don’t have to fly to outer space to experience the wonders and magic of this planet that we all share. You only have to look at the tiniest of caterpillars to be reminded that there is nothing about them that will tell you one day they could turn into a beautiful flying butterfly. Or be wowed by any one of the systems that sustain life on Earth — like the weather, nutrient, or water cycles.

The best antidote to negativity is a dose of experiential optimism (maybe that’s why animal videos rule the internet?). Remember that the future is undefined, and the present is full of wonderment and possibility.

“There is nothing in a caterpillar that says it will be a butterfly” — Buckminster Fuller

Activating Change

All of this, the contagious nature of negativity bias, the lack of a solutions mindset, and the persistent problems that we can’t just wish away, are the main reasons why we are seeding a global movement toward a post disposable future, where we redesign systems to fit within a circular and regenerative economy.

Critically though, the idea of post disposability is that we make wastefulness obsolete by our individual and collective actions. This will take all of us, not just a few concerned citizens or pioneering companies, but industries, governments, and individuals.

All 7.4 billion of us have to invest in a shift towards a future that has made waste obsolete. Recycling alone will not fix this; the solutions have to be holistic and systemic.

Thankfully, this is already underway, with countries like France, Kenya, and Costa Rica who have each started to ban disposables. We are seeing true leadership toward a sustainable and regenerative economy from industries and governments around the world.

The transition to a post disposable future has already started, but we need everyone, all 7.4 billion of us, to embrace circular systems, to move away from single-use items, and to help change the value proposition away from disposability as dominant to that of reusable and circular.

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We are launching a global initiative to redesign all the systems that sustain disposability. The #postdisposable campaign encourages a rapid shift in lifestyle choices, production practices, organization management, and government legislation to support the rapid transition to a circular, sustainable, and regenerative world by design.

We are launching our campaign as part of the Ellen MacArthur Disruptive Innovation festival in November.

Find out more about #postdisposable and get involved here.

Join the Post Disposable facebook group

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Dr. Leyla Acaroglu is a designer, sociologist and sustainability provocateur who was named Champion of the Earth by the UNEP in 2016. She runs the UnSchool of Disruptive Design and develops tools for activating positive social and environemtnal change globally.

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