Tim Silverwood & Plastics in the Ocean: What can you do?

Recently, I sat down for a podcast episode with Tim Silverwood, avid surfer, environmentalist and CEO of Take 3, who you might have seen featured in the documentary Blue. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, our conversation was incredibly eye-opening and insightful. Since recording the podcast, I’ve often found myself ruminating over our conversation, so I wanted to write this blog post to follow up what we spoke about with some practical tips to empower you to make a change and be a part of the solution.

In the podcast, we spoke about Tim’s initiative Take 3 for the Sea, which encourages people across the world to pick up 3 pieces of plastic and place them in a recycling bin every time they visit a beach. Participants are then encouraged to share a photo of their plastic bounty on social media with the hashtag #take3forthesea. This super achievable initiative has yielded incredible results: Tim told me that as a result of this project, more than 10 million pieces of plastic are picked up every year. This just goes to show how a small, collective effort can easily make such a big difference.

On a day to day basis, Take 3 is now focusing on educating communities and schools about what is at stake if we continue on this trajectory of consumption, and more importantly, what can be done about it. If you too want to help but don’t really know where to start, this blog post is for you. I’ll be going through some easy tips for you to implement into your daily life that will help our eco-system heal and thrive.  

But before we jump into potential solutions, let’s talk about our plastic problem.

When plastics were first invented back in the 1930s, they were revolutionary. They made life easier, faster, cheaper, efficient, and more hygienic. Ironically, plastics were initially seen as an eco-friendly solution: wood, metal, stone and tusks could be preserved because, for the first time in history, humans could create new materials. Derived from petroleum or natural gas, plastics were hailed as the materials that would preserve forests, mountains and animals. Natural resources could be preserved while humans advanced, unconstrained by the limits of nature. 

Unfortunately, as we all know, plastic turned out to be far from an eco holy-grail. Fast forward to now, and our planet is drowning in plastic. Every year, more than 320 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide of which only 11% is currently recycled. Since the 1950s when plastic production was ramped up, we have accumulated a staggering 6.9 billion tonnes of plastic waste, 90.5% of which has never been recycled. Since plastics are hard to recycle and practically take centuries to degrade, the wide majority of those 320 million tons either end up in a landfill, where they release methane and pollute our soil, are dumped in the ocean where they break down into microplastics and are ingested by fish, or are burned in an incinerator and release dioxins in the air. To make matters worse, plastics that enter the ocean become increasingly toxic by adsorbing oily pollutants on their surface. When plastic is ingested by ocean species, they are also ingesting these toxins, which are then transferred up in food chains – and are eaten by humans who consume fish. The situation has now reached a critical point: 8 million tonnes of garbage are entering the ocean each year and if something isn’t done to reverse this, estimates suggest that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

© Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation

While this is all incredibly dreary, the great thing is that, unlike many environmental issues, we actually know what we can do to fix this plastic crisis. Although these solutions take time, effort and money, they are achievable, and they all start with individuals taking action to be a part of the solution. So, here are 7 things you can do to help:

  1. Reduce your dependency on single-use plastics. Bring your own tote bag to stores, avoid using takeaway packaging and plastic cutlery as much as possible, buy a reusable water bottle to keep your water cool and your body free of toxins, and wrap your food in sustainable ways instead of using cling film. Let’s move away from being a throwaway society!
  2. If you’re a regular coffee drinker, a reusable ‘keep-cup’ is a must. With many coffee shops offering a discount if you bring your own cup, not only does this save you money, it makes a sizeable contribution to the reduction of waste. Estimates suggest that 1 billion disposable coffee cups are used in Australia every year. Standard disposable coffee cups are made of paper but lined with plastic to keep them from getting soggy, and are therefore neither biodegradable nor recyclable. Even coffee cups that are specifically ‘biodegradable’ require special waste management which is not widely practised in Australia. If you are going to use a disposable coffee cup, remember that the majority of lids can be recycled!
  3. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We’ve always heard this mantra before, but let’s break it down to really understand it. First, it’s important to reduce the amount of plastic we are consuming. Second, one the plastic has been produced and consumed, the best thing we can do – even better than recycling – is to reuse it. A plastic bottle, a single-use bag, a straw and other items can easily be washed, stored and used again. Lastly, once plastic items have reached the end of their life cycle, be sure to recycle when appropriate. In Australia, what items can and cannot be recycled largely depends on your local council so it’s best to jump onto their website and inform yourself about what practices are being followed locally. 
  4. Buy items from bulk bin stores to reduce plastic packaging. Not only do bulk bins often offer items at a cheaper price than normal supermarkets, you’re also saving on large quantities of packaging. Why does this matter? More than one-third of the plastic produced in 2015 were used for packaging! Packaging is also the sector which generates the most waste – so significantly reducing the amount of packaging we directly use could make a massive dent in preserving our ecosystem.
  5. Participate in take-back schemes for bottles and cans. While all of the above steps are incredibly important, the truth is that living plastic-free is still extremely hard. Plastics are used everywhere, and for good reasons: they make our lives more efficient, hygienic, and stress-free. Given that plastics are still poorly recycled, the most effective solution may be to participate in a plastic take-back scheme which will offer you a monetary reward in exchange for each can or bottle you bring in. These schemes are currently only in place in New South Wales and Queensland but will be rolled out to all of Australia next year. With over 600 points of return in NSW and 230 in QLD, these take-back schemes are already a resounding success. When plastics are worth money, people are less likely to throw them away, or if they do, others pick them up and bring them in. Win-win! If you do live in NSW or QLD, check out the Return&Earn website for NSW and the Container Refund Scheme in QLD to learn about their project and to find a return point near you.
  6. Vote with your wallet. At the end of the day, while these are all great initiatives that can prevent further damage, they will have little impact on the massive damage that has already been done. So, the most powerful tool you have at your disposal is the ability to vote with your purchasing power to shape the future you want. It’s simple supply and demand law: if you demand more sustainable methods of production and consumption, supply will follow. With every purchase of reusable containers, bottles, coffee cups, and package-free foods from bulk bins, you are sending a message to businesses that you want more sustainable products, which will eventually result in them shifting their business to fit this demand. 
  7. Skip the fish. A lot of the plastic debris washing up on coastlines is from commercial fishing activities. Fishing items (like nets & traps) are designed to catch & kill ocean creatures and withstand harsh ocean conditions, so having them persist in the sea is very bad news for wildlife who get caught in them. A lot of the seafood humans consume is from illegal & unreported sources & some industries have devastating by-catch associated with their harvesting methods. In fact, fish stocks globally are collapsing at an alarming rate, with more than three-quarters overexploited or overfished. In Australia, 40% of managed fish stocks have been deemed overfished, and 72% of fish now consumed in Australia is imported. From a nutrition standpoint, while fish has conventionally been seen as a healthy source of protein and Omega 3’s, you can get an excellent supply of both from plant-based sources. Not eating seafood is the best way to ‘vote with your wallet’ and prevent further damage to the ecosystem, but if you are still transitioning to a plant-based diet consider sustainable seafood choices. Simply search ‘sustainable seafood’  and you’ll find various apps and websites to help educate and inform your seafood purchasing choice.

The bottom line is that with a little joint effort, we can all make positive strides towards more sustainable patterns of consumption. If you’re inspired to learn more about this issue, make sure you listen to the podcast with Tim Silverwood and check out the documentary Blue. Educate yourself and others about this issue and spread the word!

The Proof is in the Plants

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