A year ago, my colleagues were bobbing around on a research boat, the E/V Nautilus, offshore California. They were sending a remotely operated submersible to the seafloor about 3,000 feet below them, to an area of the ocean that had never been seen by people.
I was teaching my Biological Oceanography class and couldn’t be on board. But thanks to modern technology, I was able to remotely watch their activities from my computer screen back on shore. Everything they saw with their robot submarines I could see, too. It felt like we were making history : sending an explorer, albeit a computerized one, to the bottom of the ocean right in our backyard.
When the submarine reached the bottom on the very first day, the first thing scientists saw in this remote habitat was a plastic bottle. Even in the places of the ocean where human eyes and hands have not yet reached, we have deposited trash.
The rest of the expedition documented vibrant deep reefs, with sponges, corals, octopus, and fish , providing a window into how much we still have to learn about the ocean. But how do we grapple with the fact that we are already impacting environments that we’ve never visited?
Our plastic addiction
To address climate change, we have to confront our addiction to single-use plastics. Nearly all plastics are sourced from materials that are derived from fossil fuels and carry a carbon footprint of their own.
A few statistics:
- Plastic packaging accounts for about one quarter of our global plastic use, and the majority of this packaging is used only once.
- Each year, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean, adding to the 150 million metric tons already there.
- Estimates indicate that “4-8 percent of the world’s oil production is used to make plastics … equivalent to the oil consumption of the global aviation sector” (The New Plastics Economy).
- These same studies indicate that plastic production is a growing pressure on oil and gas demands and will account for 20 percent of oil consumption and 15 percent of our global carbon budget by 2050.
Pair the personal with the public
So this is where I am supposed to say that your individual choices to stay away from plastic bags, pack lunches in reusable containers, and avoid plastic water bottles will make a big difference.
The problem with the “individual choices” emphasis on tackling climate change and plastic pollution is that it neglects the fact that our political system is deeply interwoven with fossil fuel companies and their interests. We need individual actions and collective ones, too.
Yes, we start by removing single-use plastics in every possible way from our lives. We can’t rely on recycling to solve this problem (because it won’t). Say no to plastic bags at the grocery store, individually wrapped pre-packaged items, online retailers that use plastic packaging, and plastic bottles and snacks served on airplanes, at work and school. Use this opportunity to break the chain of reliance upon fossil fuels in our very packaged lives.
Then, use your voice and your vote. Call your local, state and federal representatives and urge them to commit not simply to plastic straw bans — which discriminate against people who actually need straws and are essentially symbolic — but rather to a meaningful change in policy on plastic pollution. Show up at town hall meetings — and vote on election day — to make sure your voice is heard saying that we want large collaborative efforts to end plastic waste and remove fossil fuel subsidies that encourage the use of plastics.
Next, talk with people in your community — school districts, parks, organizers of community events, and other public entities — about actions to reduce waste. I did this recently in 5th- and 3rd-grade classrooms. We calculated the total amount of non-recyclable trash generated each day during lunchtime at school and then challenged the kids to wash reusable containers for their lunches instead of packing plastic bags and prepackaged items.
Our individual choices are more powerful when done in the context of the community and political system around us. Together, we can connect our reliance upon plastics to our ability to confront climate change, and leave the deep sea to the explorers.