A report in 2016 by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that at the current rate of plastic consumption growth, there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish by the year 2050.
Take a moment to visualise this. Fish swim in the water and estimates say that there are 3.5 trillion fish in the ocean. We do not see them but they are there. Now picture 3.5 trillion plastic bottles, containers, bags and other plastic stuff floating on the surface of the ocean. It might be hard for us in the city to picture but our next beach holiday could be at Plastic Bay! How lovely it will be as we enjoy dinner overlooking to spectacular sunset over the sea of plastics that stretch as far as the eye can see. Romantic.
This fact is fast becoming a reality. We do not need to burden ourselves with the statistics of plastic use and recycling rates of countries around the world. Let us instead focus at our own plastic statistics. The good news is that we are 100% in control to solve this problem and the bad news is that we ARE 100% in control of solving this problem. We are both the problem and the solution.
Let us address the elephant in the room; we know plastics are bad for the environment but we have to admit that it is a ‘super-material’ and it has so much utility value that it is virtually used everywhere in this modern age. It will be impossible to go 100% plastic free anytime in the near future. We think that should not be the aim and instead we need to direct all our efforts towards the ‘4 R’s in Plastic‘.
1st R in Plastic: Replace
Not replace plastics but replace what plastics are made out off. This is a shout-out to all chemical companies and research universities all around the world – can we come up with a plastic that is made out of renewable material, that biodegrades, is many times recyclable and still have the same utility value as current plastics? Enter bioplastics – PLA (polylactic acid). PLA is derived from renewable resources like corn starch and sugar cane, performs just like normal plastic and it is expected to biodegrade between 6 – 24 months. We acknowledge that there are many other issues that need to be addressed such as available land for growing these bioplastics but we feel this is a step in the right direction. We believe that as more research and innovation is carried out in this field, we will find better and better replacements for petroleum based plastics.
2nd R in Plastic: Refuse
If you are offered a straw in the restaurant or any food outlet, say ‘Thank you but I don’t do plastic straws!’ and slowly reach into your bag or your pocket and whip out your cool metal straw. Class. However, a more realistic scenario would be for the restaurant themselves to go completely plastic straw free and offer metal ones instead. Nevertheless, this does come with an initial cost of acquiring these straws and the need to clean them every time they are used. Bulk purchases could help reduce cost and it could be driven by a government initiative.
We could also refuse new plastic packaging by bringing old ones when going grocery shopping. Instead of just bringing a reusable plastic bag, we could also bring along reusable containers and get the grocers to fill them up with whatever produce that we intend to buy. This will also includes bringing our own bottles for juices and water as well as using metal cutlery. This leads us to the next R.
3rd R in Plastic: Rethink
Every time we encounter plastic use, it is an opportunity to think about how can we do it differently without the use of plastic. There are some instances, if not many that just can’t do without plastic and that is absolutely fine. For everything else, there may be an alternative and it will require a conscious effort on our part to rethink our choices, our lifestyle and our decisions with regards to plastic use. Plastics will not automatically disappear and be replaced with an alternative. We have to make the move. A very simple example is choosing to bring our own reusable bottle for our morning coffee. Yes, it is an extra item to carry and it can be a pain to wash it everyday but if we do it diligently for 1 year, there will be 365 fewer plastic cups that would typically end up in the landfill.
4th R in Plastic: Redesign
A plastic cup with a lid is designed to need a plastic straw. A yoghurt container is designed to need a plastic spoon. A lot of packaging is designed to need plastic trays to hold the items. These are just a few examples but redesigning them to require less plastic or no plastic at all could help us take a big step towards solving the plastic crisis. This may probably be the hardest solution but could be the most rewarding. Products have the ability to shape lifestyles and make certain actions such as reusing and recycling easier for the consumer. Product designers play a very important role in helping everyone else make the switch by designing products that are more plastic conscious.
If we could wiggle our noses, swish our wands and mutter a magic spell to instantly change all plastics into the most environmentally friendly material on earth then all our plastic problems would be solved. The last time we tried, nothing happened.
It is important to understand that not any one particular solution is the answer. Along with the traditional 3R’s – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, we need to explore all opportunities and push on all fronts.
Can we replace all petroleum based plastics with bio based ones?
Can we find more opportunities to refuse the use of plastics in our everyday lives?
Can we start to rethink our routines and lifestyles to not be dependent on plastic?
Can we redesign our products to not need plastics in the first place?
The answers are out there, waiting for us to discover them.