8.3 Billion Reasons to Break Free From Plastic

Ever since seeing the now famous YouTube clip of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, I’ve made an effort to avoid plastic straws. When I go grocery shopping I take my own bags and I also make a point of eschewing the single-use bags in the fresh produce section (much to the consternation of the person weighing my fruit and vegetables).

I try to buy things packaged in glass, I drink filtered tap water and wear flip-flops made from recycled rubber. There are plenty of zero-waste activists out there who make my efforts seem positively puny, but at least I’m doing something, right?

It’s better than doing nothing, sure, but when you consider that humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics since large-scale production of the synthetic materials began in the early 1950s, and most of it now resides in landfills or the natural environment, you realize its time to up your game.

I mean, it’s a little embarrassing to learn that Rwanda has banned plastic bags in their entirety and the campaign to eliminate plastic straws was started by a nine-year-old, when you’re still buying the occasional single-use plastic item just because it’s easier.

As if that wasn’t enough of a wakeup call, I then found out about Break Free From Plastic, a global movement on a mission to stop plastic pollution for good. With The Story of Stuff Project as one of their anchor organizations, members on almost every continent and the likes of Greenpeace joining forces with them, Break Free is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

All the Plastic Ever Made: Breaking Study Tallies 8.3 Billion Metric Tons

There’s literally a ton of plastic garbage for every person on earth. Think about that for a moment and then ruminate on this: of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950s, over half of it was made between 2004 and now.

We all know that plastic is a problem, but whether it’s the desire for convenience, the fact that we’re lazy or that the problem just seems overwhelmingly large, we’re all acting as if nothing’s wrong. That has to change.

I caught up with Shilpi Chhotray, Senior Communications Officer at Break Free From Plastic to find out how. Her suggestions for effecting change at both a domestic and civic level are more than doable. Literally, we have no excuse not to implement them.

Shilpi isn’t just paying lip service to the movement either. She’s implemented these practices at her own company—Sumudra Skin + Sea—as well. She started the skincare line with an ‘ocean-first’ business model (Sumudra means ‘ocean’ in Sanskrit) that uses reusable glass containers instead of plastic and edible-grade kelp as an ingredient source.

samudra skin and seaPhoto Credit: Sumudra Skin + Sea

How did you come to be involved in the Break Free From Plastic movement?

I’ve been involved in ocean advocacy for a decade and became immersed in plastic waste issues a few years ago through my work in stakeholder engagement with an ocean plastic lens. I took a deep dive, if you will, on the major players (the companies creating it and the organizations fighting against it) and the key research around the issue during this time. In July 2017, I was recruited to take the role as a Senior Communications Officer to amplify the work of the organizations behind the movement.

We’re each drawn to the causes we support for different reasons. What prompted you to focus your efforts on ocean conservation?

It was a study abroad trip to Cairns, Australia, home to the Great Barrier Reef, when I was a college undergrad at Virginia Tech University. Being exposed to the human impacts on the environment, specifically the ocean, sparked a lifelong desire to protect our blue planet. I took my interest a step further and focused my efforts in graduate school on marine protected areas, or creating underwater national parks to safeguard earth’s most precious resources. After being introduced to the rocky intertidal ecosystem (and the magical world of seaweeds), I was inspired to study marine organisms through underwater exploration via scuba (and a human-powered submersible in a later position!).

The stats released in the latest study (8.3 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950) are overwhelming to say the very least. Is it really possible to turn the tide on plastic pollution?

And to add to that, only 9 percent has been recycled since, which sparks two major considerations not being discussed enough: first, the global north (US + Europe) export copious amounts of waste overseas and second, recycling is clearly not a viable solution to the plastic waste crisis.

It’s absolutely possible to turn the tide on plastic pollution and that’s what Break Free From Plastic is all about. By emphasizing source reduction and investing in zero waste solutions at the city-level, we can greatly combat plastic waste ending up in our ocean, roads and waterways.

For instance, one of our member organizations in the Philippines, Mother Earth Foundation, helps cities develop programs to manage their waste. In the city of San Fernando 75 percent of waste gets composted or recycled and they aim to hit 93 percent. Mother Earth’s President, Froilan Grate says, “If you truly want to stop ocean pollution, it starts on land, which means rethinking how we manage our waste.”

What do you say to the person on the street who thinks the problem is too big to fix?

We created the problem in the first place so we can also fix it. We HAVE to fix it because we’ve already reached the tipping point of acceptable levels of plastic pollution. Microplastics (broken down from larger pieces of plastic) are literally everywhere, from fish to seabirds to our sources of drinking water, and even sea salt and beer.

Using a reusable bag and skipping the straw is good place to start, but it’s a terrible place to stop. My colleagues at SOSP for instance, encourage a culture of ‘leveling up’ by taking these practices to your communities —your office, your child’s school, after school clubs and even your favorite café, to effect widespread change.

Where you go next is to engage at the civic level. Talk to the companies! If you don’t like the business practices, tag them on Facebook, write to them about your concerns. You can also write to city government officials to pass regulations…these are all important steps to effect systems change.

I love this quote from our Campaigns Director, Stiv Wilson: “Our consumer muscles have gotten really strong and our citizen muscles have gotten really weak. Not everyone is an activist, figure out where you can contribute and plug in.”

How can we as individuals make a difference? Can you offer some suggestions (small and big) of changes we can make in our daily lives?

It’s important to make smart purchasing decisions and avoid brands emphasizing a throw away lifestyle (single-use plastics). Break Free From Plastic member organizations in the Philippines recently conducted an 8-day coastal cleanup and brand audit in Freedom Island, a critical area for migratory birds, to identify the most polluting brands. Turns out, six international brands are responsible for roughly 54 percent of plastic packaging pollution found there.

Among them are corporate behemoths like Nestlé, Unilever and Proctor & Gamble —parent companies of the brands sitting in your kitchen and bathroom right now. Break Free From Plastic is encouraging anyone doing coastal cleanup activities to combine it with a brand audit, because coastal cleanup is simply not enough. For more information visit Plastic Polluters.org.

There are greener alternatives that are better for us and the planet. Personally, I’ve transitioned to shopping for groceries in bulk, buying less, and a lot of DIY. Even slowing down and dining in can help reduce single-use plastic waste, and it’s more fun too!

What is the one thing you’d really like people to understand about the negative impact of plastic that we might not already know?

Plastic pollution is not just an ocean issue, it’s a social justice issue impacting low income people of color who are often on the front-lines of the crisis fighting incineration (or burning of plastic waste) for the safety of their communities. Many of these communities are also in Asia and being blamed for the waste they didn’t create, the waste coming from the developed world.

At Break Free From Plastic we are shining a spotlight on innovative and scalable solutions created by our Asian colleagues, focusing on zero-waste cities and making sure the responsibility falls on the corporations accountable.

Was being a socially conscious brand on the cards from day one for Samudra Skin + Sea or did the brand’s ethos evolve over time?

Absolutely —it’s a social venture. We have an ‘ocean-first’ business model, which means protection for the ocean is the foundation for all aspects of our methods and mission. For instance, we hand harvest the wild seaweed used in our products to ensure the regenerative properties of the plant continue to thrive for generations to come.

We have a zero-waste packaging model which means all of our products are encased in reusable glass jars with bamboo lids and/or compostable boxes certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Our soap bar in particular, created for hair and body, eliminates the need for bottled shampoos and conditioners. We strongly advocate a ‘less is more’ mentality and repurposing and reusing when possible.

Our mission includes partnering on marine conservation campaigns that benefit people and marine life. The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and 5 Gyres (who is also a Break Free From Plastic movement member) are two fantastic organizations we work with to communicate efforts around ocean stewardship. Personal wellness and ecological integrity need to go hand-in-hand, and Samudra is bridging that gap.

With so many people doing what they can to effect positive change in the world, it’s hard to just sit back and pretend that plastic is someone else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem. In my own life, I’m definitely going to try harder to reduce the amount of waste I generate. What about you? How will you #breakfreefromplastic?

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock

97 comments

Paola S
Paola S2 days ago

Thanks

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Trish K
Trish K4 days ago

Only 8.3 Billion Reasons ?

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Janis K
Janis K4 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Virginia Miller
Virginia Miller7 days ago

Thanks for the info

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Ruth S
Ruth S8 days ago

Thanks. I recycle!!

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Danielle S
Danielle S9 days ago

What an awesome article. Thanks!

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Anna R
Anna R11 days ago

Thank you

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Jerome S
Jerome S16 days ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S16 days ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven16 days ago

thanks for sharing

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