Stop blaming plastics, start blaming ourselves

For a while, the pollution of our seas has been creeping onto my radar, especially with shows like Blue Planet II bringing it to TVs around much of the world. The topic also moved even more to the front of my mind when a good colleague of mine suggested that the company I worked for at the time—Source Global Research—sponsor three of her friends who had [crazily/bravely/inspirationally] signed up to row across the Atlantic in a bid to raise awareness of the world’s single-use plastic issue. Of course, Source being the fast-moving and great company it is, its directors and the team signed straight up and got involved: We did a team beach clean in Brighton on an away day, and we became gold sponsors for Status Row.

One second is all it takes for there to be enough plastic pollution in the ocean to create a 33ft/250kg plastic whale

It wasn’t until Lauren and I got to Thailand a few weeks ago, however, that I realised just how colossal and pressing an issue the pollution of our seas really is. For the first time, I understood how one second is all it takes for there to be enough plastic pollution in the ocean to create a 33ft/250kg plastic whale, like the one that toured around the UK over the past year (see picture below). To paint a picture of what we saw on the Krabi coast: There was plastic frequently floating in the sea, plastic cups and straws buried in the sand, and plastic strewn across the tops of beaches where high tide had carried it. And plastic is only part of the waste floating around: We saw glass bottles, a lot of string and rope, fishing tackle, sanitary items, and much more. As inflection points go, this one was pretty hard-hitting: Lauren and I suddenly realised just how large a problem this is.

One second’s worth of ocean plastic pollution

Let me get one thing straight, I am by no means solely pointing an accusatory finger at the Thai people. Rather, we saw first-hand there the extent of the global waste problem, and shivered at the thought of the same shocking waste management practice multiplied hundreds of times over across the rest of the world. The naked facts make for scary reading: “It is estimated that there is now a 1:2 ratio of plastic to plankton and, left unchecked, plastic will outweigh fish by 2050,” according to a recent Telegraph article. Yep, that’s right: more plastic than fish by 20-flipping-50. That may feel a long way away, but it’s actually horrifyingly close. 

It is estimated that there is now a 1:2 ratio of plastic to plankton and, left unchecked, plastic will outweigh fish by 2050

Before this trip, I’d naively believed the rhetoric that the over-usage of harmful plastics and other unsustainable products was the fundamental problem here. Sounds simple, right? Make less of the bad stuff and the issue will quickly disappear. Something I realised in Thailand, however, was that blaming plastic over-usage is actually pretty unfair. Yes, everyone should make a personal effort to limit their use of unsustainable products, stores should stop overusing plastics with immediate effect, and governments should put much better and more forward-thinking regulation in place, but we should also stop using these to hide what is arguably a larger problem: poor education and inadequate waste management procedures.

And nowhere is this more true than in less-developed countries. Yes, I know, Thailand is a relatively developed country compared to many. And that’s why I felt so compelled to get some thoughts down on paper. One of the first things we noticed in Thailand was a lack of bins (trash cans for you Americans). Anytime we wanted to throw away some rubbish, we had to walk into a shop or restaurant and ask them to use their bin. With no exaggeration, I can tell you that we saw one (yes, ONE) public bin in our six days in the country. This is just one example of a waste management system stuck in what-feels-like the nineteenth century. Another is something we saw as we walked past a resort near the popular Railay beach: Hundreds and hundreds of garbage bags were being chucked from person-to-person in a line, and eventually into a barge ready to ship them to god-knows-where. This, however, wasn’t the real issue. Rather, the fact that many of the bags weren’t properly tied was: As each bag was chucked around, waste was literally spewing out of the bags, which didn’t seem to bother the workers whatsoever. The boat, as a result, had bits of trash floating all around it. Lovely.

Before my musing turns to ranting, I’ll cut this short. I’ve realised that the issue of waste in our seas is worse than I could’ve imagined and that it’s made all the worse by the fact that a large chunk of the problem could be seriously mitigated if certain countries tidied up their act (pun intended). Clearly, there is no quick and easy fix, but if the government and leaders of a country don’t put the right infrastructure and education in place as a matter of urgency—and simultaneously continue to point the finger at plastic production and over-usage—then not enough will change. The starting point for turning things around in countries such as Thailand should be investment in infrastructure, education, and programmes that reward proper waste management. Without that, I fear there’s no hope.

As for advanced countries, more investment and regulation is needed as well, and science very clearly has a huge role to play; we met an Australian biochemist in Thailand who was working on a sea sponge that could “eat” plastic! However, what is arguably even more important is for people young and old, rich and poor, to really start to stand up and take responsibility for what they use and how they dispose of it. Enough is surely enough. 

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