On 11 May 2017 the young Dutch scientist Boyan Slat presented a new version of his revolutionary programme Ocean Clean Up, to structurally deal with the ‘plastic soup’ that is drifting in oceans all over the world. It will start in 2018 and promises to get rid of the plastic within five years. There is no doubt that this is a great initiative, which is widely appreciated and has already helped a lot to make us aware of the existence and the extent of the problem. Yet by just focusing on the technical side of it, we might get the impression that waste problems are mere technical issues.
A plastic ocean
In the impressive documentary A Plastic Ocean (which can be seen on Netflix) we can see that in some places on our planet garbage, including plastic, is never collected and people literally live on top of it. Apparently the bottom of the Mediterranean in many places is littered with plastic. I didn’t know that. It also shows that some plastics break down into microplastics, spreading throughout all our oceans and being swallowed by fish and seabirds, thus entering our food chain. I didn’t know that either. You might say that from the animals’ point of view some kind of reciprocal justice is being done here. We get back what we have given…
Land- and ocean-based litter
To bring this terrible situation to a halt, we must get a clear idea about the underlying cause. Do we know where the plastic is coming from? Femke Koekkoek has pointed out that ‘researchers divide marine litter into two categories; land- or ocean-based. Land-based debris is litter that is blown or washed into waterways and transported to the ocean. Ocean-based litter comes from people on the coasts or from sea vessels. Scientists calculated that up to 80% of the marine debris is land-based litter.’
So sunbathers and other visitors to beaches contribute to the remaining 20%. We all know that the fast food businesses on popular beaches still use a lot of plastic and people also bring a lot of potential waste like plastic bottles with them. But this need not result in beaches being littered with garbage, as unfortunately is still often the case.
I remember once visiting a beautiful deserted bay in the West of Ireland, which was littered with abandoned plastic bottles. These bottles had transformed this marvellous spot into a true wasteland. In the film A Plastic Ocean we can see that these kinds of wastelands, and some that are much worse, exist all over the planet.
When I think about land-based litter, the image of littered areas after outdoor (music) festivals comes to mind. As this kind of mess is expected by the organizers, clean-up services have usually been arranged in advance. But in a way this approach legitimises careless and wasteful behaviour: the conviction is strengthened that other people will take care of our waste.
I have just taken a walk through my hometown Leiden and noticed quite a lot of plastic waste lying on the pavements. Of course this is incomparable with some of the horrific places filmed in A Plastic Ocean, but it shows all the same that the problem is really on everyone’s doorstep.
Reduction of plastic and separate collection
Since we have become aware of the existence of the plastic soup, international and national authorities have been triggered to take legal action. The EU has been developing a strategy against ‘Plastic Pollution’. For a few years there has been a ban on plastic bags in the Netherlands: free plastic bags may no longer be given to customers in Dutch shops. On top of that, separate containers to collect plastic bags have been installed everywhere. It’s a fact that these measures help to reduce the waste. But, like the initiative by Ocean Clean Up, I fear that they do not go beyond the material side of the problem; they only deal with the symptoms, not the cause.
The way we deal with plastic
We should realise that the problem is not so much about the plastic products themselves but about the way we – from individuals to entire societies – deal with them. Even if we throw our garbage into the designated containers at home, do we know where it will end up? Do we know what happens to the waste that is produced by the organizations or companies that we are working for? And what happens to waste that is shipped abroad? Do we keep track of it, or is it out of sight, out of mind – not our responsibility anymore?
In a larger, more general sense, it all has to do with the way we relate to the environment, with our level of awareness, with actually knowing where we live. We can consider the environment a kind of pleasant background to our life – even a very large, nearly immeasurable background in which a little bit of plastic waste disappearing under the water level can be ignored as quite irrelevant to our personal health. Or we can realise that the environment is the very basis to which we owe our life, providing us with everything we need to live on.
To be where we are
The environment can even help to expand our sense of self. The central idea that Duane Elgin put forward in this book The Living Universe is appropriate here: ‘Who we are depends directly upon where we are’. It stresses the interconnected nature of our being. In fact all that is needed, to prevent the plastic soup being followed by an even more extensive plastic main course, is an open, receptive mind – a mind open to change. In this respect the concluding message in the film A Plastic Ocean makes a lot of sense: ‘From knowing comes caring and from caring comes change.’