Silencing the Pessimists – Our Future With Plastic Can Be Positive

As we stumble back across the beach, arms laden with buckets full of collected litter while trails from dragged fishing nets follow our footsteps in the sand, we feel a sense of both achievement and sadness. We have fixed our little corner of the planet, done our bit and potentially saved the life of a local creature. Yet as the sun rises over the coast the next morning, all our hard work seems undone as the rays of light shine down on a whole new wave of human waste taking up its unwelcome position on our shoreline. Surely there is something we, as individuals, could do to prevent the plastic piling up on our doorsteps?

In today’s era of smartphone technology, we can all become ‘citizen scientists’, driving the research which will underpin our industrial re-evolution. This investigation is essential in what many class as an informational issue as only 1% plastic is accounted for on the ocean surface; the whereabouts and origin of the rest remains disputed. Citizen science actively involves members of the public in science projects which can range from taking photos to monitoring pollution or generating algorithms. While you may feel your high school science doesn’t quite make the cut, public contributions can in fact be invaluable to scientists as it allows a huge global data set to be collected, something impossible to achieve by professionals alone. Your day job may even provide skills essential to local projects, whether that be organising, number crunching or encouraging people to join in and talk about their views on the ocean.

The ‘Big Microplastic Survey’ has been running in 42 countries since 2018, with volunteers conducting beach surveys using items found abandoned in kitchen cupboards from sieves to tubs and buckets. This can be done in combination with a beach clean as microplastics are sifted from the sand, counted, photographed and the data sent away for analysis via their app. Some initiatives ask you to photograph local rivers to show the types of plastic which are entangled with branches or lodged between rocks while others collect your tagged wildlife photos. Even simply placing a sensor on your kayak or surfboard can collect information on local water quality. While ‘science’ is often associated with complex language and incomprehensible ideas, these data collection techniques are all incredibly easy and come with detailed instructions from project leaders. More people than ever are now transforming into their citizen science selves as we strive to find solutions which will not only benefit the ocean, but also our own wellbeing as this generation becomes the most inquisitive yet in a century full of activism.

Yet the facts continue to unfurl. ‘There will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050’. ‘79% of plastic waste goes to landfill’. Each one makes our efforts seem a little, well, underwhelming. But while we gather together our reusable bags, brandish our bamboo toothbrushes and walk to the shoreline armed with litter pickers, scientists themselves are not wasting any time creating even more wacky but wonderful solutions to our crisis. Here are just some of the many ventures to keep an eye out for. Indonesian company Evoware are creating alternative plastic packaging from seaweed, an algae which not only absorbs our CO2, supports fish nurseries and thrives without chemical inputs, but also provides us with a mineral packed product which is both biodegradable and edible. If being able to have your cake and eat the wrapper too sounds perfect to you, edible cutlery crafted from rice and wheat is now increasingly available in a variety of flavours. And it’s not just us that are hungry, scientists have discovered bacteria which have evolved to eat certain types of plastic which could provide us with a future of bio-recycling. As proteins made by bacteria break down the long molecule chains which form plastic bottles, smaller building blocks are created which we can more easily harvest and redesign into new plastic products.

Until these inventions really lift off, the Wasteshark is a new marine drone which traverses waterways, collecting up to 132 pounds of rubbish in a single trip. If this small electric vehicle was used five days a week, 15.6 tonnes of plastic could be removed each year, with far more collected if one was deployed in each major port, entrapping large amounts of industrial waste before it breaches seawalls and reaches our precious oceans. Cornwall based Fishy Filaments has created further use for our harbourside jumble of worn fishing nets by redirecting them away from the water and into their warehouse where they are transformed into 3D printing materials as this traditional industry fuels our future enterprises. However, this movement doesn’t stop at innovators and outraged individuals, as countries including France and Chile have created their own Plastics Pact, working towards national goals to achieve global change in unparalleled collaboration. This pact includes governments and companies which produce up to 20% of all plastic packaging worldwide, aiming to make all wrapping recyclable, reusable or compostable within the decade. In the UK, large players such as Boots, John Lewis, Coca Cola and major supermarkets have already committed so watch out for changes near you.

Others argue that the future of plastics lies not in its demise but in its reinvention as bioplastic. By promoting the production of plastics from corn starch and sugarcane, we can encourage these biodegradable products to compete against our petroleum inventions, many of which unnecessarily last the test of time. After all, plastics themselves are not the problem but our consumption, desire and love of them is. Almost every modern industry uses plastic in some way while our future relies on this still revolutionary material. The cheap alternative we love to hate provides £2 malaria nets which save countless lives and while plastic may be seen as waste itself, it also prevents food waste and soon will prevent the wasting of fuel in our heavy, climate corrupting cars. Plastic is too essential to many industries including medicine to completely eradicate it, instead we have to calm our insatiable need and stop waiting for the big revolutionary change to occur. Our ocean needs small consistent changes from each and every one of us if we are to halt this global issue which spawns from inside our homes, destroying the largest natural wonder on our big blue planet. Making this enormous change is now easier than ever as the internet allows individuals and small initiatives to have a worldwide impact, spreading their message so local actions can become global movements.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair