I used to not care about the problem of marine plastic pollution. In fact, prior to joining UN Environment about 14 months ago, I was blissfully ignorant of the issue. Sure, I knew that so-called single use-plastic was bad and dutifully tried to bring my tote bag when I went grocery shopping, but the question of where our discarded plastic bags, straws and plastic soda bottles actually ended up was one which I had never really given much thought (this lead to a somewhat awkward job interview, but that is a different story).
This is no longer the case. Having been involved with UN Environment’s #CleanSeas campaign for almost a year (launching a campaign takes time), I now almost know more than I care to about what happens with the plastic items we throw away. I know that every year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans. I know that this river of plastic has devastating effects on our marine environment and the creatures that live in it. I am not going to bore you with too many numbers, but I need to give you a couple: in 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean, and it is estimated that about 90 percent of sea birds have ingested plastic. One study found that almost 670 different marine species have already ingested or been entangled by plastic. The fact that fish eat plastic means that we are as well. That is the price you pay for being at the top of the food chain, while also throwing away lots and lots of plastic. As if this was not bad enough, we know that the plastic that fish eat is typically microplastics. These are miniscule pieces of plastic that can absorb whatever toxins are already in the water. We do not know yet whether this can be harmful to us humans, but the thought of the fish we eat feasting on toxic plastic is not a comforting one.
In addition to working with governments and the private sector, an important part of the campaign is encouraging people to change their habits in a way that reduces their plastic footprints, and using their purchasing power to encourage companies to do the same. As a good campaign worker, and as someone who now knows all too well what plastic is doing to our oceans, I am trying to follow suit. This means I am still bringing my tote bag to the grocery store. I am also bringing my travel mug when I get coffee, I try to remember to ask waiters not to get me a straw when I order a drink, and I do my best to avoid buying products that come with a ridiculous amount of excessive packaging. I sometimes slip up, though. A couple of times, I have impulsively decided to buy coffee on my way into the office only to discover that I left my coffee mug there. This has resulted in me getting a huge plastic cup for my iced coffee. Obviously, the cup comes with a straw. Entering the UN compound carrying this highly incriminating piece of evidence, I feel as if I were walking around with a bloody knife or a copy of Waterboarding for Dummies, and I try, with various degrees of luck, to hide from my colleagues until I have finished my guilt-tinged coffee.
I am getting better though, and that is important! The thing with marine plastic pollution is that no one can solve the problem alone, but we can all do something, and we should! Here in Kenya, I am reminded of this every time I go to Lamu. Located in the Indian Ocean close to Somalia, this small island is a little piece of paradise and one of my favorite places to visit. But even there I cannot escape marine plastic; I see it on the otherwise pristine beaches when I go for a morning walk and in the ocean when I go for a swim afterwards. For me, although sad, it reminds me that what I do at work matters.
It matters what you do as well, even if you don’t work for UN Environment. That is why I urge you to go to www.cleanseas.org to join the campaign. Here, you can see what other people are doing to reduce their own plastic footprints. You can pledge to do the same, or you can come up with an action of your own. The time to act is now. Together we can turn the tide on plastic!