It's Plastic Free July! Another calendar event - this time a whole month's long - to get the nation wringing its hands at what we're doing to our beautiful planet.
Between floods, bushfires and the frightening statistics around global warming, it’s no wonder “eco-anxiety” is raging, and politicians with climate-positive platforms were rewarded at the polls recently. So, without wanting to add fuel to the proverbial fire, man have we got an urgent pollution problem brewing out in the deep blue.
Let’s start with the Great Barrier Reef, the jewel in Australia’s natural crown. The WWF estimates that between pollution and global warming, the reef has lost over half of its coral cover in the past 3 decades. Add in predictions like this little horror from UNESCO: that by 2100 over half of marine species will be on the brink of extinction, and no wonder our oceans are the issue that seems to get eco-anxiety flowing here in Australia like nothing else.
Indeed, a 2018 study by Mobium found that the number 1 environmental concern plaguing us beach-loving Aussies is the state of our oceans. No wonder 77% of us support a ban on single use plastics as soon as possible, according to latest findings by Ipsos.
Let’s talk about ocean plastic pollution for one second. It’s the “ocean impact” issue that certainly gets the most press, and yes, the stats are dire. It’s estimated more than 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, 130,000 tonnes of which are from Australia alone. That’s the equivalent of a truck full of plastic rubbish dumped into the ocean every minute.
Memorably, we’ve been told that there are 500x more pieces of plastic in the ocean than there are stars in our galaxy, and that by 2050, there will be more plastic out there than there are fish. But before your eco-anxiety turns into a full blown panic attack, let me be the bearer of more positive news: with a little co-operation, ocean plastic pollution may be one of the easier environmental problems we humans are able to solve.
I’m certainly not saying it’s going to be easy. It’s definitely going to take us all making some changes, and at scale too. But they don’t have to be completely life altering. You know, not like forsaking flying, driving, or genetically engineering a cow that no longer farts methane into the air, like it would take to solve Carbon Emissions. Or co-ordinating the pain-staking, yet mammoth and critically urgent task of bringing almost 200 sovereign nations onto the path to reducing Global Warming.
Let’s break it down. It’s estimated that the average Australian uses 130kg of plastic, per person, per year. It’s a lot, and no, you probably can’t cut it all out that easily. But here’s the kicker: just 12% of that plastic is being recycled, according to the WWF! C’mon Australia. For a country that apparently loves its oceans, we sure are pretty rubbish at sorting our rubbish.
So let’s start here. Ocean action agenda item number 1: get wise to your local recycling options, and in the name of all that is deep, blue and Holy please use them. This includes your kerbside recycling, but we need to go a little further than that. Please make use of the amazing RedCycle scheme at your local supermarket for soft plastics (before they go ahead and choke a turtle), and if you’ve got kids, check out the specialist Toy recycling scheme via Terracycle that’s hosted at your local Big W. My sister-in-law has an absolutely genius way of ‘outsourcing’ her recycling to her eight-year-old son, and it’s called Return & Earn (there's a similar scheme called Containers for Change in Queensland). He gets 10c from the machine for every plastic bottle he deposits, and the local government essentially pays his pocket money. Told you this recycling malarkey could be easy.
Once you’ve got recycling nailed, let’s look at plastic reduction. You don’t need to cut it all out here, but the key is longevity, and “circularity”. Ditch the single use plastics, and choose plastic products that are either made of recycled waste, or can be fully recycled at the end of their life, ideally both. I don’t need to tell you again how plastic bags, and single use plastic bottles, are two of the biggest and most harmful ocean pollutants there are. They trick turtles into thinking they’re lunch, trap fish and crustaceans and break down into toxic micro-plastics that make their way up the food chain. They are to be avoided as far as is humanly possible. Invest in a tote and take it everywhere. Ditto a re-usable water bottle.
Check the brands you support on their packaging. That online shopping polybag should be compostable, or at the very least made of recycled plastic. Recycled cardboard is best, and some clever brands have even managed to source packaging that dissolves when you’re done with it. If you get your groceries delivered, choose the paper bag. It’s often as easy as checking a box, maybe paying 50c extra. If you shop in a supermarket, remember that tote. Probably several. And bring back those old plastic bags for use again, or to put in the Red Cycle scheme. That’s ocean-friendly, and efficient too. And it really needn’t be hard – keep your bags in the back of the car, or put a note on the fridge, whatever helps you remember.
It was great to see climate action motivate so many Australians at the ballot box this year, but if you care about the state of our oceans, don’t stop there. Lend your support to legislation. Show our policy-makers that you care about issues like single use plastics, setting a meaningful target for net zero, and creating more protected marine parks to help our incredible marine life thrive. This sounds like something only those with far too much spare time would do, but signing an online petition is easy as. It takes a few seconds, a few more to share. Many organizations even provide pre-written letters that you can digitally sign and have sent to your local representative. You can literally lobby parliament whilst watching MAFS these days. What a time to be alive!
Since us Australians love nothing more than heading to the beach, carve out a little of your sunbaking time to do something meaningful. If you like connecting with other locals, consider joining a beach clean-up.
Check in with your local branch of Sea Shepherd or Greenpeace AU to see if there’s one happening near you. But if that all seems like too much effort, consider making Take 3 for the Sea part of your regular beach ritual. The mantra is simple: just leave the beach with 3 more bits of rubbish than you arrived with. I wish I could say this takes more than a few seconds, but if you live near a busy urban beach like I do, this is almost depressingly quick to do. And if we all did it, well you get the picture…
When you’re back at home and rinsing the sand away, with some easy swaps, you can make ocean care and self-care one and the same. Talking of those pesky micro-plastics, microbeads are like their bigger, meaner cousins, and they are found in far too many bath and shower products. Many countries (such as Canada, the UK and New Zealand) have actually taken the step to ban micro-beads. Technically they’re banned here in Australia too, but some imported products seem to sneak through. Avoid them.
Using naturally-derived products will also avoid hazardous chemical wash into our oceans, which can wreak havoc on marine life. Check your products. Choose reef-safe sunscreen. It’s a thing, it definitely works and it avoids harmful chemicals washing off out into the ocean, replacing them with a physical sunscreen layer instead.
Whilst we’re on washing, and micro-plastics, let’s talk laundry. Each time you launder your clothes, clothing fibers enter the marine environment through the waste water that leaves your washing machine and enters our sewage system.
Researchers have proposed that a single load of laundry has the potential to release hundreds of thousands of microfibres and remnants of chemical dyes into the water supply (Resnick, 2018), and unfortunately these particles are too small for our waste management systems to filter.
Enter the micro-fiber capturing filter: there are plenty of products on the market that can either be used to wash your clothes (like a micro-plastic capturing laundry bags) or fitted to your washing machine to capture some of these pesky particles before they head out to sea and poison the fish. The bags in particular can be surprisingly affordable, and are so easy to use.
So there you have it, a little collective action can go a long way when it comes to cleaning up our oceans. I don’t know about you, but finding an environmental issue I can actually do something meaningful to solve feels pretty good to me, and that’s something for us – and our oceans – to cheer about.
More of a visual learner? Or simply want a handy checklist to keep by your side this July? Pin or download our Plastic Free July infographic below, and see how many steps you can take this month towards clearing our oceans of plastic.