NaNoWriMo Day 22: 270 000 Tons

Some people say it is the plastics era. We drink out of it, we wear it, we use it for everything. It is useful, of course! I’m just looking over my desk, what do I find? Plastic headphones, plastic calculator, my laptop, my phone do have plastic parts, pens and bottles and wrappings of food, the boxes I carry my food in to uni. Everything is plastics. This is one indication of how I’m also a slave to the system of plastics that has overcome us. Slave is too passive. I also actively choose to buy those things! I can’t help it! I’m in no means better than anyone else. I just would like to bring some awareness to it. To consider our actions more consciously.

The thing is: We can do something about this problem. We can use different wrappings, bottles, clothes – there are alternatives. Why don’t we choose them? We all know the reasons. Plastics are hygienic, light, cheap. Here comes the challenge. They are too good for us and too bad for everything else around.

To make the discussion not too complex I will not focus on the obvious source of plastics – our fossil resources. This is closely related but will not be an aspect here. I want to focus on the effects plastics have on our environments and accordingly on us. We are not only eating out of plastics, we are eating them themselves. Our water is full of little plastic particles so tiny you cannot see them anymore. In our food, in fish and marine animals. We feast on plastics every day. Tasty.

I want to provide you with some numbers here: 268,940 tons of plastics are currently swimming in our oceans (1). That equals roughly estimated 50 000 elephants. Well, that’s also a bit difficult to imagine. Take the population of Los Angeles. Average of 70 kg per person. The combined weight of all people in Los Angeles equals the weight of all the plastics in the seas. That’s the weight. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?

But why does the plastic flow and isn’t magically disappearing? This is why we bought it for, right? It is light and durable. Now we got the problem. Through sunlight and other weather phenomena the plastics are dispersed into small particles. And then eaten by all the small creatures that inhabit the sea. Plastics move up the food chain. Until we also consume them.

Not only do the animals consume them, they also get entangled, are seriously harmed and may not even hunt for food anymore (2). Have you ever tried to eat with a plastic bottle attached to your arm or even your head? With a foil around your body? It is terrifying.

Through wind and the currents in our oceans, those little particles of plastics are transported everywhere. Inputs in southern hemisphere are much higher than in the northern, but the amount that is found is approximately the same (1). Plastics are everywhere.

So now that we know all that, what now? This is maybe the most important question. I don’t want to be a preacher because I think that talking does only help to a certain extent. I show you my art, what I am passionate about. I hope that you will become passionate about it too. Also, I want to stress, that I am no environmental angel. I also buy vegetables in plastic foils. I also use shampoo in plastic bottles. I do all those things too. The thing is: I am aware of it and I try to reduce it. My way of thinking is that even a small change can have an impact. Our actions matter, the good and the bad. Maybe next time you buy water, take ones in the glass. Or buy yogurt in a glass. Buy articles in larger containers. Don’t buy bottles at all. Cook more and eat less packaged food. Bring you own cup to your favourite coffee shop. You can do many things.

Through my studies especially of waste management, I became more aware of the whole system we are a part of. When I go grocery shopping now, I think about what is going to cause the most garbage. Which of those wrappings I can reuse. It is a conscious decision. Maybe you can think about this the next time when you go shopping. Even small changes matter. To our environment and in the end also to all of us.

We are the only inhabitants on this earth making something that nature cannot break down. It tries, making the problem only worse. There is a great series of talks on plastics in oceans. Look it up here: TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch.

We had a very interesting topic in Economics today: The Stern Review on Climate Change. A little summary: It costs us up to 5-20 times more to invest in dealing with the effects of climate change than to protect it from happening in the first place. Investment in climate protection. It gets more expensive every year. GDP will decrease around 1% annually, if we change our energy sources to green energy, our transportation system. If we don’t do so, there are going to be many different effects, that influence our economy in a negative way: The weather events will get more extreme, there won’t be enough water and people will not be able to do agriculture anymore. There will be diseases and heat stress. Loss in biodiversity, pollution – the list is endless. Maybe you are a very rational person and you just want to see the effect climate change has on us on an economical level. Here are the numbers: 5-20% loss of GDP to today’s status. When we do nothing about our current situation. When we do not try to tackle climate change. When we put our hands in our laps and sit still until this earth will eventually collapse.

This is a message to the most extreme climate change deniers, people who do not see the point. To the most blind or unethical people: We will have a worldwide economic power decline of 1/5. Open your eyes and get to work.

Those numbers in the Stern Review are a few years old. We have done more research. The consequences we have found are even higher now. That’s why our potential loss will also be higher.

If we instead choose to invest in renewable energies, we might also face a potential economic benefit. The market for these energies is huge, we can make money with it! The authors suggested, that we might even have an increase in GDP in the end, of 2%.

A student asked: “When it is so much cheaper and apparently everyone knows about that, why aren’t we doing anything?” Our professor posed a question back: “Are you talking of me? All economists know this review. Everyone in this room does.” He went on to explain something totally unrelated to the question. The core remained. Why? Why aren’t we doing anything?

Dealing with climate change now is best for our own lives, our society, our economy, our environment- everyone! Or as or professor said: “Climate change is the biggest market failure we ever faced.”

We live in capitalism, we want high short-term profit. We face trade-offs. If we acquire a short-term benefit from our actions and in the long-term we might feel guilty about having polluted the environment, we don’t care. That’s how the system works. It’s the same for the big companies. In the end, they are the ones with the influence. Not the people, not the politicians and the workers, not anyone. The power lies where the money is, I’m sorry. Either we try to change that system or we try to deal with the problem together as a front against those who go on polluting. As consumers we have a choice. As people we have a choice. We can put our money where we think our interests and values are best represented. When we don’t participate in a plastic-wrapped system anymore, it has to change sooner or later. If we do not give money to companies anymore who will pollute our oceans with hazardous plastic waste, they will not be there much longer. If punishment from governments does not help, we have to do it. If we cannot speak to hearts anymore, we have to speak to bank accounts.

That all sounded so abstract. Let me break it down to some simple steps:

Notice what you buy. Buy less. Recycle more. Take action, clean up, speak up. Here’s a brilliant article on 10 easy steps to avoid plastics and to change the world in little steps:

Let me end with two little stories.

My mum and I went to the store recently and I tried to find a dish detergent which would be sustainable and without any hazardous substances. We found one. Wrapped in a bottle that was made from the plastics from a canal in Amsterdam. The waste would have reached the North Sea. Now it was put back into the process chain, recycled. It’s still plastics but if we cannot break it down into fossil oil again, we can at least use it as long as possible.

When I was walking around my favourite lake the other day, I saw some people collecting plastics out of it. Plastic bags, wellies, plastic wrappers – everything you might imagine. It was horrible to see that much garbage in such a little lake. On the other hand I was so happy to see people showing love to their environment. A child and his father I believe. Why don’t we make father-son fishing trips about collecting garbage in the future? Make it a challenge. Clean up your hometown.

Do you live near a coast or a lake? Start a cleaning project by yourself or ask your community if there is one. With joined efforts, with love for our planet and by little actions, we can change the world.

Here are the sources I used:

1 Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, Borerro JC, et al. (2014) Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE 9(12): e111913. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111913

2 David W. Laist: Overview of the biological effects of lost and discarded plastic debris in the marine environment, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 18, Issue 6, Supplement B, June 1987, Pages 319-326

If you are interested in the Stern Review I mentioned, here’s the complete study: It’s 662 pages long, just so you know. There are some good summaries out there which you maybe rather would like to go to. I’m doing Nanowrimo, I haven’t got any time to read this whole thing either.

Current Word Count: 36 964


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