An extraordinary amount of the things we use are made of plastic; it's a universal material that has integrated into all aspects of our lives. We use it every day, from the hairbrush in our bathroom to the bags we use to pack lunch. Plastic has made our lives easier in numerous ways, but a large majority of it is single-use. We typically use a Ziploc bag once and then throw it out, we drink a bottle of water and then throw it out, we buy a product from the store and throw away its plastic packaging, and these are only a few of myriad single-use examples.
Once disposed of plastic doesn’t break down and it also doesn’t stay whole; it breaks into microplastics. Microplastics are created when a larger piece of plastic breaks down into smaller pieces. They can be thought of as small beads of plastics or stray fibers that break off into larger pieces. These fibers can carry pollutants and other harmful chemicals on them that later get released into the ocean and make their way into the systems of living organisms (NOAA, 2018). Plastic is forever. Plastic doesn’t decompose and will continue to harm the environment it remains in.
On an episode of the Ocean Protect Podcast, Tom Gammage explains that plastic is a product and pollutant. This is what drives his advocacy for environmental health. At the beginning of the plastic industry when products became marine litter, it was thought that the problem was the consumer, not the producer. People felt they were the ones that needed to make a change instead of taking action for making a change at the source. This mindset has shifted in recent years due to overproduction and leaks in the narrative of recycling.
Many objects don’t get recycled and further contribute to the problem.
Images of wildlife choking on plastic in the ocean have been at the forefront of the plastic emergency, but Gammage ensures that this is just “the tip of the iceberg…it's much more sinister” (Ocean Protect, 2022, 6:18). Plastic production is roughly doubling every ten years and it is closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. It threatens the health of our human and environmental communities. To combat this, Gammage explains the need for a global treaty on plastics.
There is a need for a treaty on such a large scale because “a global problem requires a global solution… it's no problem that any country can handle alone” (Ocean Protect, 2022, 12:15). Nature doesn't have boundaries or borders and the problem is interconnected with everyone. The problem needs harmonization between countries to help with solutions. The proposed treaty includes sustainable production and consumption, the design of plastic products, the full life cycle of plastics, and pollution in all environments (Ocean Protect, 2022, 14:15). This is just the beginning of what goals have to be involved in the treaty. The goal is to have the treaty signed in 2025 with the hope that action plans will follow shortly after.
The largest changes can come from the entire population working together. Gammage highlights the idea of everyone working toward common goals and this remains true for any environmental problem. Some ways that individuals can help is through personal responsibility and also by giving calls to action.
The first step to change is to reduce your own plastic use. There are many alternatives to single-use plastics. Chose to use reusable water bottles or bring your own bags to the grocery store. These alternatives may seem small, but it all contributes to the goal of reducing overconsumption while we work to create large-scale change. Another way to help the plastic emergency is by supporting something like the global treaty Tom Gammage proposes. This is a global problem and needs universal support.
Brown, J & Dalrymple, B. (Host). (2022, June 12). A Global Plastics Treaty with Tom Gammage [Audio podcast episode]. In Ocean Protect. https://shows.acast.com/ocean-protect/episodes/a-global-plastics-treaty-with-tom-gammage
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2018, September 20). A guide to plastic in the Ocean. NOAA's National Ocean Service. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/marinedebris/plastics-in-the-ocean.html