How Plastic-free Can We Be?
In 2016, the way people talked about the problem of plastic was very different - it was one-sided. Plastic was largely demonized and framed as something we needed to get rid off completely.
One of the most controversial videos that came out of that time was a plastic straw being taken out of a sea turtle. Understandably, it sparked a lot of anger towards single-use plastic - including me.
Needing some form of action and feeling that I was doing my part, I would personally message friends who’d have a plastic straw on their Instagram story.
At some point one of them got really mad and scolded me about it. After a few years in the sustainability-sphere and learning how multi-faceted it is, I continue to realize that those moments of confrontation were where I should have been more empathetic.
You see, the problem of plastic is a complex one. Plastic is an extremely cheap material to use, and its versatility has allowed for countless innovations from healthcare to aviation. In the context of waste, it even reduces food waste by extending the shelf life of food that might have normally gone bad in a few days.
On the flip side, it’s pretty clear that all of those benefits come with a really big cost to the environment. As the population increases and consumption grows, the need for more plastic is an ever growing one despite the lack of proper and effective plastic waste management systems all over the world.
On an institutional level, some would say recycling is the answer, but that comes with its own share of problems too, such as the lack of segregation, contamination, and it’s just really expensive to do when you’re in a country with limited waste management facilities. Don’t get me wrong, it is part of the solution, but it can’t stand on its own.
So what then is the answer? Frankly, there isn’t a clear one at the moment but there are ongoing initiatives and movements that are making strides to improve the waste management systems. One good example would be the Circular Assessment Protocol of the Jambeck Research Group, Save Philippine Seas and USAID which allows a better understanding of the local problems and opportunities to craft more sustainable and long-term solutions suited to the country.
On an individual level, we have to shift out of the “plastic-free” mindset and instead focus on creating attainable and sustainable goals that can be done by the majority to achieve our low-waste objectives. By creating smaller and more attainable goals, we understand things on a deeper level and create solutions that can be replicated by those around us.
While some people might argue that these individual actions do not solve the bigger problem, it underestimates the capability of the individual in making a difference or in creating a new culture. Lifestyle changes often end up shared with social circles and when like-minded individuals band together, then the impact is magnified.