Image Credit: Emilian Robert Vicol, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped
It is hard to deny that plastics are having a moment – you open Facebook to find videos of turtles floating among plastic bags, Instagram to find every company is proudly getting rid of plastic straws, the news to find out the latest on the Great Pacific garbage patch. Plastics are what colony collapse disorder (aka. where are the bees going?) was a few years ago: the new environmental issue that everyone is talking about.
Now, plastics are certainly an irrefutable problem. We obviously have an unhealthy dependency on plastics that are found in our clothing, food, soaps, and homes. However, there is a question among conservationists and scientists over whether or not it is a good thing that the public conscious seems to become obsessed with a single issue, while others outside the limelight seem to fall away (similar to how in the USA people seem to have forgotten that Flint is STILL without clean water). I want to discuss how the new media landscape propels environmental fads, the good they can do, and the possible problems.
The Sad Turtles of Instagram
There is no patient zero photograph or video to point to for the beginning of the current plastics pushback, but it could have been any of these. Plastics are something that have visual consequences which elicit an emotional response. Similarly, colony collapse disorder is destroying bee populations; who doesn’t find bees adorable? On social media, when it is so easy to scroll past so many ads and baby photos, it takes something really dramatic to actually capture our attention. Plastics provide that drama. Meanwhile, the disappearance of species that may be important but that are not charismatic are easy to scroll past.
Secondly, once that photo does actually pull your eyeballs away from a cat meme you begin to think. You look from the plastic bottle that you are drinking from to that plastic box holding the salad you bought downstairs. It is something you see and maybe have even thought there was too much of. There are so many problems surrounding plastics that it is an issue no matter your values. Whether it is your health, how your garden looks, or your favorite species, the repercussions of our use of plastics are ubiquitous. Similarly, it does not take a genius to figure out that massive quantities of dying bees is not a good thing for food security and we all need to eat. The insidious problems are the ones not readily visible, like ocean acidification or rises in carbon emissions.
You look up from your cellphone and say “we need to do something!” You ditch your plastic bottle and repost the ominous image of a dead bird filled with microplastics. You feel content having taken some sort of action.
It really isn’t quite that simple though. The problem with plastics comes from their relative cheap production. It is cheaper for companies to sell their products in plastic than in biodegradable products (there are even edible plates!). This problem comes from modern supply chains and how the western economy has changed. More and more, people are quickly eating meals bought on the go. Many facets of our lives are based on quick, cheap consumption. Use of plastics follows naturally from this lifestyle. The products we buy are not made to last, leading us to consume more plastic products and keep the economy chugging along.
Beyond Plastic Reduction
While scientists are happy that the plastics issue is finally having the moment it deserves, it leaves us with another question. What about climate change? Deforestation? The bees? These issues are all wrapped together, and they come down to consumption. Campaigns and protests against plastics have led to companies rethinking their products. Lego is looking into plant-based products. Norwegian oil giant StatOil changed its name to Equinor. Supermarket chains are implementing biodegradable bags. But even the most eco-friendly new product takes energy and resources to produce. For so many environmental issues, the problem is the same.
Reducing our use of plastics is a good step, but our obsession with reduction in plastic can blind us to the true issue – over-consumption. We’re not lumping all the blame on the consumer here – rather the larger system we have built together and the industries that fuel it. Our economy is propelled by consumption and our values are tied to production, even at the detriment of the long term health of our species. So, while it is good that industries are responding to the plastic movement with alternatives, the issue of overconsumption with all of its trickle down effects to other environmental problems remains.