This week the BBC network released a new documentary series by renowned filmmaker and naturalist David Attenborough. The 7-part series, Blue Planet 2, comes exactly 16 years after the original Blue Planet and takes a spectacularly in-depth look at the wonders of our oceans.
The focus of the series is the aquatic world, and unfortunately no such examination would be complete without a chapter on its newest and fastest-growing demographic: plastic.
Which is why Mr. Attenborough wasted no time, imploring action at the series’ launch; the show itself includes a troubling scene of a mother albatross coming back from the hunt with a belly full of nothing but bits of plastic for her chicks.
Like most problems of this magnitude, the numbers are overwhelming. A recent Guardian investigation estimated that, globally, we buy one million plastic bottles per minute and that “plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050.” And according to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, somewhere Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean, where much of it gets consumed by fish, birds, and other ocean wildlife. They also estimate that by 2050 our waters will contain more plastic than fish (by weight).
absurd numbers could only be possible in a world that has made plastic a
ubiquitous part of daily life. Which is another reason this feels overwhelming.
Plastic is everywhere, so ingrained and intertwined with our everyday that most
of us cannot imagine a world without it.
Yet some people are. As reported in this Project Earth piece, the largest market for plastics is packaging. Our retail shops and modern supermarkets are a veritable rainbow of plastic packaging, invading even the once-natural world of fresh produce. And this packaged reality is exacerbated by the fact that while other materials like steel or concrete have decades-long lifespans, “half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”
Recent discussions around plastic-alternatives are, therefore, welcome news. Andy Clarke, former CEO of Asda, one of the UK’s major supermarket chains, has gone on the record saying that reduction and recycling measures have not worked, and that despite best intentions, the demand for plastic packaging has only increased, with the large majority of plastics ending up as various forms of pollution (this NatGeo estimate shows 91% of plastics are not being recycled). According to Mr. Clarke, the only true solution is for retailers to reject plastic entirely in favor of sustainable packaging alternatives. Coming from a such a high-ranking member of the retail establishment, this is a major statement.
Until and unless we all go back to minimalist hunting and gathering, we will continue to buy stuff wrapped in other stuff. Digging up the earth for oil just so we can burn it into disposable plastic seems more than a bit wasteful—so why not do things differently? These new innovators are trying just that:
Evoware, an Indonesian company, is making packaging material out of seaweed. The product dissolves in hot water, is nutrient-rich, and is basically tasteless, so can dissolve directly into some products or biodegrade completely if disposed of. Considering that Indonesia is the world’s number two plastic polluter and that they have an oversupply of seaweed, which absorbs CO2 as it grows, this innovative product could do a lot of good in a lot of ways.
Then there’s SaltWater Brewery, which made a splash with edible, biodegradable 6-pack rings that feed turtles and sea life instead of killing them.
And No Evil Foods, which, along with vegan products, also has developed 100% compostable packaging material.
These companies—and other likeminded efforts like the New Plastics Economy innovation competition—show us that opinions are changing and momentum is building. But if we hope to move in this positive new direction, we’ll need to use the influence of our voices and our wallets to bring about lasting, substantive, industry-wide change.