Imagine being at the beach, breathing in salty air, listening to rhythmic waves lapping at the shore and basking in the warmth of the sun.
Imagine taking a step forward, expecting to feel the warmth and yielding slip of hot sand on your feet, and being greeted by the percussive crunch of plastic instead. Imagine looking around and not seeing sand anywhere, but miles of plastic waste piled up several feet high. This isn’t an imaginary scene, but a real one: for every foot of coastline in the world, there are five shopping bags’ worth of plastic waste.
Sadly, a scene like this doesn’t surprise us anymore, with awareness about plastic pollution at an all-time high thanks to successful social media campaigns and grassroots movements. People are more informed than ever and taking steps to be more eco-friendly, but however well-intentioned, our individual actions may not be enough.
The problem with plastic
Because it never breaks down, plastic is a fantastic material for items or projects that are meant to last. However, its durability becomes problematic when it’s used for disposable items. For decades now, we’ve used plastic, a material that’s designed to last forever, for items that are used once and then thrown away. As a result, the overwhelming majority of plastic waste comes from disposable packaging for food products, like Styrofoam containers, straws, plastic cutlery, candy bar wrappers and chip bags, as well as single-use sachets for personal care products.
Recycling: only part of the picture
You might think that we already have a solution for plastic pollution in recycling, but most of the plastic found in the environment today has no value in our recycling systems, costing more to collect and process than it’s worth when sold—if it even can be sold. You won’t find plastic bottles in nature as often as other kinds of waste, as they’re more valuable and get collected as a form of income.
“When you’re talking about a Coca-Cola bottle or a plastic water bottle, a higher percent of that gets back into the recycling system,” says Jamie Rhodes, Program Director at Upstream. Improved waste management is important, but it’s a short-term solution, as it only reduces the amount of plastic that already exists and doesn’t address the root cause of pollution.
Envisioning a green future
Upstream is an organization that envisions a society where unnecessary, single-use disposable packaging is a thing of the past, helping our environment and health thrive as a result. To get us there, they’re working to change the way businesses deliver products, a unique approach to addressing our plastic problems.
“We want to take apart the throwaway society and build a culture of stewardship,” Rhodes explains. “[Plastic pollution is] not something that can be solved only by state and city policy work, so we…focus more on how can we influence companies across the United States to take action and become leaders in preventing plastic pollution.”
A corporate responsibility
Lots of campaigns have focused on changes consumers can make, like carrying reusable water bottles and coffee cups or avoiding using straws. These actions are important—we should all be conscious of our plastic use—but like recycling, they don’t do anything to stem the flow of plastic through the marketplace. In Upstream’s view, the responsibility of cleaning up our plastic mess lies not with individuals, but businesses: they were the ones who developed disposable packaging as a way to deliver their goods, and as such, they should be the ones to come up with a better, more sustainable solution.
“We’ve been taught to expect that items are going to be sold in single-use plastic…and this is not by accident. This is intentional,” Rhodes says. “If [businesses] were the ones who taught us to like this…they can also be the ones to unteach us.”
Reshaping our consumption habits begins when we’re pushed to think and make decisions about disposable items. For example, some coffee shops offer a discount to customers that bring their own mugs, stopping yet another disposable item from entering our waste systems and incentivizing customers to carry a reusable cup. In some municipalities in Germany, coffee shops must offer reusable cups for a small deposit. Solutions like these are often simple, taking us back to how we used to do things before disposable plastic became widespread.
As consumers, we’re directly impacted by the practices of the companies we patronize, and if they encourage us to make responsible choices, we can quickly become accustomed to these new habits. “It forces consumers to think when they’re purchasing, to push consumers...to make an informed, cognizant decision. That’s when you start being able to get cascading impacts,” Rhodes explains. “If I’m forced to make a decision…and I tend to make the right one, then the next time I’m forced to make a similar decision, I’ll then make the right one as well, whether it’s taking my own mug to a coffee shop, or bringing my own water bottle.”
Changing our habits to reduce our disposable waste is important, and minimizing waste’s impact once it’s discarded is important too. Innovative companies are creating eco-friendly versions of disposable items so when they’re thrown away, they do no harm. Paper straws and compostable cutlery have already entered the market, but we’re still a long way off from all disposables being biodegradable.
Reducing your personal waste is fantastic, but it’s a drop in the bucket of the problem that is plastic pollution. We can affect greater change by voicing our opinions and pressuring the businesses we patronize to rethink how they deliver products. In today’s digital culture, it’s easier than ever to reach out to brands and get a response.
“Social media has democratized and flattened the world on how to converse with a company that you buy stuff from. If I’m not happy…I get on them on Twitter and problems get solved right away,” Rhodes says. “Demand change! Ask, ‘Can you provide me this product with no plastic packaging?’ If we have enough people asking store managers…that question, suddenly you start getting something that changes [brands’] behavior.”
Now when you imagine a beach, picture it looking pristine, peppered with seashells and driftwood instead of Styrofoam and straws. Through the combined efforts of organizations like Upstream, educated consumers and companies that are open to change, we can make this greener, cleaner future a reality. Upstream’s vision might seem utopian, but it wasn’t too long ago that we lived without single-use plastics: sometimes you have to look back to see the way forward.