Aimee Clark: Life in plastic, it's NOT fantastic

How does the ocean and the planet affect my life? 

How does my lifestyle and the choices I make affect my health, the ocean and the planet? 

There are a multitude of complex and pressing issues which when listed, create an almost daunting and interconnected set of problems affecting the oceans. But in the past year it seems that one problem in particular has gained the most momentum for change. The plastic pollution crisis. 

Maybe this is because I have become more involved in this space and therefore have been deluded into thinking there is more attention being focussed on it, or maybe we are finally waking up and realising the extent of what we have done. 

Even to this day, people still argue across the world about how much of an impact that humans have had in causing issues like climate change, but probably the only good thing about the war on plastic is that it is an indisputable fact that it is human caused. 

We did this, we created plastic and consequently there was a cultural shift from a circular economy to the fast-paced, throw away mindset and society we live in today. We are the only reason for the plastic pollution crisis and therefore there are few arguments about the how and the who and thankfully, slowly, more discussions around what we can do going forward. As Jack Johnson says in his song 'You Can't Control It' people must,"understand the magnitude of the melodies that they make" before they can think about fixing the problem. 

However, the hard part of truely wrapping your head around this crisis is that there are two things we need to be doing simultaneously in order to combat this global problem. You can't solve the problem without cleaning up the mess we have already created which is quite a challenge when there are now macro, micro and nano-plastics found in every single terrestrial and aquatic environment in the world including in the tissues of most fish and plankton. There is also no point in cleaning up the mess if we don't create new sustainable products (on a large scale) to help people transition to being at least single use plastic free.

Then there is the education side of it all, making people want to change, making people aware and guiding them through the intricate and confusing clutter of targeted greenwashing around different 'sustainable' alternatives. And of course there is the policy and industry side, two areas which are arguable the hardest to change and most often the most frustrating to influence.  

This year, my family and I have been on a journey to cut out single use plastic from our lives, and I won't lie and say it's been easy. No matter how hard you try it is ridiculously hard to escape the clutches of plastic. Once you become aware of it, you see it everywhere and you come to realise that we are drowning in the stuff. 

And, because you may not be fully educated about the dangers of alternatives that say they are 'sustainable, eco-friendly, biodegradable or compostable' you fall back onto these alternatives and end up contributing to the problem again by reinforcing the greenwashing.  

So yes it is hard, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try because the consequences of ignoring the problem are far worse than the annoyance of forgetting your reusable cutlery or your Boomerang Bag when getting takeaways. 

Coming back from The Ocean Conference last year I was motivated to do something tangible right away. And so I joined a small group of four women as a part of the Victoria International Leadership Program who were putting together an entry into the Think Beyond Plastic Marine Innovation Challenge. Our eventual proposal focussed around the creation of a digital platform that would help connect and foster partnerships between the various organisations, charities and businesses that worked on combatting marine debris or providing product solutions to single use plastic. This project 'Linking Ocean Guardians' was a finalist in the competition and my first real introduction to the community fighting the war on plastic in New Zealand. 

Coming away from this project I was even more determined than before to learn as much as I could about the world of plastic pollution and how I could contribute to igniting positive change. After attending many different education based events I began to realise that as wonderful and informative as these events were, most of them were just 'preaching to the converted'. It seemed the majority of people turning up to the events were people that already knew about the global issues of plastic pollution to some extent. They weren't reaching the people and communities with little to no knowledge and most of them were not really focussed on showing people HOW they could begin to cut out plastic or discussing new research areas like how plastics and toxins that attach to them could have severe human health impacts. 

Consequently I decided to organise my own event as part of Sustainability Week at Victoria University, one which involved a selection of people with different areas of expertise, one where I hoped to provide people with resources to help them going forward in their plastic free journeys. As the Ocean Projects Coordinator of the Victoria Development Society I organised the first Ocean Plastics Forum on the 31st May 2018. The evening including presentations from Dr Trisia Farrelly of Massey University and Dr Olga Pantos from ESR, alongside leaders in the sustainable business/organisation sector of Wellington; Sarah Child from Boomerang Bags and Ella Tisdall from The Nude Grocer. The evening concluded with a dynamic panel discussion and documentary screening. 

Although the event was very successful in terms of the number and diversity of people it reached and the information they (and myself) gained, just continuing to have one off events and workshops- although a good start- is not enough anymore. In my opinion there needs to be some sort of international agreement about the way the world is going to tackle this crisis just like the Paris Agreement for climate change. Although I am not very well informed about international, environmental law I think this could at least hold countries and major industries to account and give them measurable goals and targets to meet. 

Alongside this, I think there needs to be at the very least a national-wide ban on plastic bags and straws as a starting point for our country (and every country) as soon as possible (yesterday). Consequently, I believe there needs to be compulsory education around environmental issues like plastic pollution in all schools at all levels of education instead of the rare, independent, travelling one day workshops that are only accessible to some children. This is because people need to learn (and adults need to re-learn) how to function in a circular economy and live without the plastic products that they have depended on for so long.

 I also think we need to help connect organisations, businesses and passionate individuals in this space more effectively to help foster new partnerships and open communication for collaboration between these parties, so there are more perspectives at the table for creating new technologies, proper reusable alternatives and sharing research. 

So what would my advice be to someone just beginning this fight against plastics? Start by educating yourself as much as you can. Although there is a lot of contradictory information out there, talking to other people who might be further ahead on this journey has been so beneficial to me. Joining 'Waste Free' or 'Plastic Free' groups on social media (even just as a passive member) and 'liking' a variety of ocean based or plastic pollution based organisations helps you discover what information is out there. I would also highly recommend reading the latest National Geographic magazine 'Planet or Plastic?', it is a really good breakdown of the different issues of plastic across the world and also delves into the human health effects. 

Once you have this knowledge it is up to you how fast you want to cut out single use plastic and this normally depends on your lifestyle. I would recommend starting with plastic bags and straws and making sure you remember to refuse them when they are offered to you in shops and restaurants. Then maybe think about clothing as there are microfibres of plastic found in the majority of clothes we wear that come out every time we wash them. Then maybe you move into cosmetics and invest in a bamboo toothbrush for example, or a shampoo bar, or maybe you move into cleaning products and make your own or look into services that let you take your own containers to refill. The journey happens in stages that are different for everyone and due to the amount of plastic in our lives we cannot possibly do it all at once. So be gentle on yourself when you make mistakes and always encourage others be actively talking about what you are doing and what the overriding issues are. 

At this point, once you have started with causing individual change you might want to think about how you could contribute to collective change, whether there is a community group, school or university club or through a volunteer organisation you could join. Ask your local council, enquire to organisations like Sustainable Coastlines, Boomerang Bags or 5 Gyres and attend their community events. Once you go to some of these events and speak to people it is amazing how fast you can slip down the rabbit hole and find yourself more and more involved just by speaking with different people and organisations.

As for me, although this journey can be frustrating and sometimes I feel like I will never create any lasting change, I am constantly inspired by the people I encounter and their passion. I have discovered that this is an area that I can definitely see myself working in going forward and look forward to the opportunities that await me in the future. 

I think the most important thing when thinking about the entire problem is how the plastic pollution crisis affects every country and every environment differently and that they all have different resources they can use to combat plastic pollution. Just as combatting climate change could be the next 'nuclear free moment' for New Zealand so too could the war on plastic. Being a small country surrounded by water it is hard to ignore the harsh realities of the problem littered across our beaches and waterways, in the water we drink and in the seafood we consume. 

When plastic was created as a material it was not designed to be detrimental to our global environment, our health and our oceans. Instead it was designed to help people in their daily lives and we would not have the technology we take for granted today without the creation of plastic. However,  unfortunately it is the benefits of plastic as a material- it's durability, longevity and flexibility of use- that has become the problem. It is in how humans have used and abused it as a material that has lead to the crisis we now face and as a consequence it is up to us to fix it... and fast. 

"Plastics aren't inherently bad. It's what we do, or don't do, with them that counts" - Dr Sylvia Earle

Featured is an image from the Ocean Plastics Forum on the 31st May. 

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Featured is an image from the Ocean Plastics Forum on the 31st May. 


Posted on June 13, 2018 .