It’s the monumental legacy of a once-great civilization that can be seen from space. No, I’m not talking about the Great Wall of China, but the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. It spans an area of more than a million square miles, mostly made up of non-biodegradable plastic, which is slowly leeching into the ecosystem, and our food chain, as toxic micro-plastics. It’s set to be the lasting remnant of our age. An unwanted monument communicating the values of a wasteful and avaricious culture to the galaxy.
But how did it get there, and how did we get here? In truth, despite the monstrous size of this ‘gyre’ (and it’s just the largest of many), it is but a bulbous spot on the ugly face of our societal packaging binge. It seems hard to imagine now, but in the early twentieth century plastic was regarded as a new wonder material, coveted for its longevity. Yet somehow this substance lauded for its endurance has become synonymous with throwaway culture. 50% of all plastic is used only once before it’s discarded.
Far from being reserved for special uses, plastic is used to package pretty much everything. And we’re producing more of it than we know what to do with. Take plastic bottles. Some 38 million of them are used in the UK every day. Despite a surge in recycling rates, more than 16 million of those end up in landfills. And that’s just the UK. Globally 1.4 billion plastic bottles are bought a day.
Things look set to get a lot worse, as developing nations are increasingly adopting Western consumerist habits geared towards quick convenience, over-production and relentless consumption. It is estimated that plastic production will double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050 as a result.
The plastic bottle is the perfect symbol of a consumerist culture that craves instant gratification with little regard for the mess it creates. We love the plastic bottle, or at least its contents, for a few fleeting moments. Then we dispose of it. It drifts out of our lives downstream to the continental-sized rubbish patch in the sea. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. 1.4 billion times a day.
Of course, plastic isn’t the real culprit. Manufacturers have a lot to answer for. But the power is also in the hands of the consumer, and the decisions we make can have an impact on what kind of world we live in. If we stop buying single-use plastic, the manufacturers and retailers will stop wrapping it around everything.
Just as plastic was once considered a miraculous replacement for the inflexibility of wood, metal and glass, so a new wave of innovative and more environmentally friendly materials are looking to usurp plastic from its synthetic throne.
A prototype wrapping made of milk protein has recently been devised, perfect for packaging food as it’s edible and prevents more oxygen reaching the product than plastic would, thereby reducing food spoilage. Another new bioplastic takes inspiration from nature. Much like orange peel, it doesn’t start to degrade until after it’s been used, thus maintaining its shelf life. Even the much-maligned plastic bottle now has a biodegradable counterpart. One such design was invented by Ari Jonsson, and uses red algae, instead of a mixture of damaging chemicals and finite resources.
But for all these new materials which could revolutionise packaging as we know it, they still have an environmental impact, as they take energy to create. When it comes to packaging, perhaps it’s an old adage, as much as a new invention, which holds the real key. Less is more.
Even if we stopped producing all plastic packaging today, the rubbish islands in our oceans wouldn’t disappear. Thankfully, there is also great innovation happening in some of the clean-up initiatives. Boyan Slat was just a schoolboy when he started working on the solution. Unsurprisingly his precocious talents − and an inspirational TED Talk − have catapulted him to prominence. Of course, this might not be a perfect solution - there are some groups who have raised concerns that this system removes important plankton from the surface of the ocean.
He’s since established the Ocean Clean Up Foundation, dedicated to solving the problem. Its ingenious solution deploys V-shaped screens in the ocean, which filter out plastics as the tide carries them into their paths. The plastic can then be collected and taken ashore to be recycled. Essentially, it allows the ocean to clean itself.
Another potential solution lies in synthesising enzymes produced by certain fungi. Fungi can break down most carbon-based things with enzymes and use them as a nutrient source. Before there was any other life on the planet, fungi was breaking down bare rock and using it to produce energy. And there are forms of fungi which have proven able to break down plastic without producing toxic byproducts.
But these high-tech solutions and grand projects mustn’t be used as an excuse for us – as both individuals and a society – to shirk from our responsibilities in both reducing and ameliorating our mammoth mess. Recycling is usually the thing that springs to mind when we think of taking personal action on reducing waste. There’s no doubt we should all recycle more, especially given that in 2016, recycling rates fell for the first time ever in the UK.
But reducing the amount of waste created in the first place will always be more effective. As consumers we can do this by not wrapping our food in plastic at the supermarket, using reusable bags, and consciously buying products which are packaged efficiently and economically – such as ‘refill’ packs. If consumers vote with their feet, brands are forced to listen.
It has been estimated that for every bin bag of waste that comes out of your home, another 70 bin bags worth of waste are created in the process of producing it. So even if we recycle everything, there’s still a huge problem. Whilst consumer pressure could help to instigate change, it seems we need a fundamental shift in the way we organise production and consumption. We should move from a linear process of make, use, dispose, to a ‘circular economy’ whereby maximum value is extracted and resources are used efficiently in a way which minimises or eliminates waste.
We have the tools to make this a reality, but the real impediment is the cultural imperative of overconsumption and waste. The beauty of culture is it is liable to change, just like a tide bearing streams of strewn plastics. Small changes in our daily habits, smarter use of sustainable materials and more efficient design can coalesce to make the change we need. Do we want our civilization’s lasting legacy to be more plastic than fish in the ocean (a possibility by 2050) and garbage patches the size of countries? Or do we want to be remembered as the generation who took control of the plastic problem, created new solutions, and made the world a better place for our descendants?