I write about the dispiriting details of plastic pollution often. And for as long as I can remember, I've been picking up plastic on hikes, in public parks, and on backcountry camping sites. Once I spent 45 minutes gathering up every last bit of styrofoam that had blown onto the surface of a Dominican cenote, and managed to draft two other women into helping me. I've been picking up plastic on beaches, and encouraging others to do the same for as long as I can remember.
I know I'm not alone. There are Responsible Runners groups who pick up beach trash in Australia (special shout-out to my aunt who is part of the team in Coogee Beach!) and plogging (jogging plus picking up litter) has spread from Sweden to many other parts of the world. Here in the United States, annual beach, lakefront or trail cleanups are a part of the calendar in all six of the states I've lived in.
This is good work done by nice people who genuinely care. But, is it effective?
Since only 9 percent of all the plastic ever produced has ever been recycled, and the marine plastic problem continues unabated, I'm going to say no.
Pushing it back to the source
Beach clean-ups are nice, but the real solution to our plastics problem isn't more people picking up plastic trash; it's companies taking responsibility for the plastic they produce. And that has to mean more than just encouraging people to put their plastic in the proper bin — which isn't that effective. There are many places where, even in 2018, only a small percentage of plastics can be recycled, and places where none is. And since China is no longer taking our plastics to recycle, it's piling up. (The reason China offered for that change in policy was that our plastic waste was "too polluting" for them to recycle. Think about the reality of that for a minute.)
Outside the U.S., the situation is much more dire, with waterways filled with plastic litter — not because local people just toss it willy-nilly into the water but because facilities to recycle plastic don't exist.
It's time to ask ourselves: Is it ethical for a company to produce a product — especially a disposable, single-use product — and to sell it in a place that doesn't have the capacity or ability to deal with that plastic? By doing this, soda companies, candy companies, fast-food snack companies, and even personal care companies are making a profit by selling something they know full-well is harmful. That's just wrong.
Better consumerism isn't the answer
Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns for The Story of Stuff, recently took a tour of developing countries to document the plastic issue they face. He writes, these companies are "externalizing pollution" by flooding markets with products they know can't be dealt with considering local infrastructure. I followed Stiv's travels around southeast Asia, and his journey reframed the plastic pollution issue for me. As he writes, "So next time you read about 'The Philippines being one of the largest contributors of Plastic to the ocean in the world' remember that it's because of companies housed in the US, Europe etc."
Our personal choices are the only ones we can directly control, so I completely understand the POV that says "if there's a problem, fix it yourself." It's one I have resolutely espoused for the last 15 years.
But I was wrong, because in that 15 years, the situation has gotten worse. There are half a billion more people, plastic use has increased — and it's set to increase by 40 percent over the next decade. We cannot "personally change" our way out of the mess we're in. Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot sums it up perfectly:
[It's a] mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by "taking responsibility" for what we consume.
How to break free from plastic
So, I'll keep picking up trash; I can't really help myself from cleaning up wherever I go. So next time I do it, I'll take part in one of The Story of Stuff's "brand audits" as described in the video above. This will help the organization target the companies whose products disproportionately contribute to that particular plastic waste problem.
But I will stop believing that if more people were like me, it would make a difference. We won't. (Sorry!) But we can if we get together and force companies to change their practices. As Monica Wilson of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives writes in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Cities and states can be the first line of defense against plastic pollution through sound policy that minimizes waste instead of merely managing it.
So it's up to us — not to do a better job recycling, but to pass legislation that disallows the wholesale pollution of our environment by companies making a buck off that very pollution.