Cofee, games, fitness, Netflix, or beer. It seems to be very human to have your own peculiar addiction. There is one product none of us can’t get enough of: plastic. Once hailed as a revolution, it is now quickly becoming one of mankind’s biggest health hazards. Last week I went to a screening of the documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’ in Brussels. Preceded by a panel discussion between director Craig Leeson, marine biologist Richard Thompson, activists Hugo Tagholm and Maria Westerbos, and CEO of Klean Kanteen Jim Osgood. It was an eye-opening evening for me. This is what I take away.

The screening of the documentary was preceded by a panel discussion. From left to right: Leeson, Tagholm, Westerbos, Thompson, Oswood, Beck (own photo).

Plastic truly is a wonderful material. Lightweight, colorable in all shades one could desire,  shapeable to one’s wishes, dirt cheap, and above all durable. And we should be fair, polymers have proven very helpful to store food, contain cosmetics, build toys, and make cars a lot lighter. Where did it go wrong? “We allowed ourselves to be tricked into the belief that plastics are disposable,” says Leeson. This notion clashes with the inherent durability of most plastics. Half of the 300 million tonnes of plastic that is produced every year is for single use. 8 million tonnes ends up in our oceans every year. “The dream has become a monster”, summarises Westerbos.

It’s a monster we created ourselves. “Plastics are currently treated as if they lost all value after first use,” Thompson observes. Think about it. When you finished your daily dose of Starbucks goodness, do you care about the cup? No. You don’t even give it a thought. Yet, the plastic in itself is, except for some traces of coffee, as valuable as it was before. It ends up in the wastebin nonetheless.

Once the plastic has landed in the trash can, different things happen. In the very best case, the trash is properly separated and the plastic is recycled. Too often, pigments, complicated shapes, or mixes of different polymer types make plastic products unprocessable in a recycling facility though. A huge opportunity to improve recycling rates. Instead, the most favorite option in most developed countries is to burn plastics together with other types of waste. Quite polluting, but at least you can generate some electricity with it. The most common ‘solution’ on our planet is to dump the trash on landfills or in the sea.

Turtles get stuck in abandoned fishing nets and die if they cannot free themselves (photo: A Plastic Ocean).

Consumers clearly have to change their mindset, but “we need behavior change along the whole value chain,” according to Tagholm. Redesigning plastic products to keep them in the material cycle after their usage is key. Ditching plastic altogether, especially single-use plastic, is even better. Osgood is CEO of Klean Kanteen, a company that has developed a series of durable drinking bottles, cups, and mugs. They are not only avoiding a lot of waste, they are also looking damn cool.

Of all the litter that ends up in the ocean, “70% sinks to the bottom of the ocean where it forms a tapestry of waste that will stay there for hundreds of years,” says Thompson. Where it gets really scary is what happens with the 30% that stays in the higher water layers. The impact of the salty sea water, the UV-radiation of the sun, and the beating of the waves breaks the plastics down into smaller and smaller parts. Chemicals from industry and agriculture (that are also dumped en masse in the oceans) stick to those little pieces which turn into “poison pills”, as Westerbos calls them. Once eaten by fish, the chemicals easily migrate to the fattiest body parts and accumulate. Think about that next time you go for sushi.

Birds confuse plastic parts for fish or other food. Their stomach gets filled up, making it impossible to consume real food. The birds die a slow starvation dead (picture: A Plastic Ocean).

Aha! We have reached a weak spot. People’s health is on the line, so then we start caring. And as Westerbos argues, plastic does not always take such a long way to end up in a human body. Chemicals in food packaging leak when they are heated or damaged. 9 million polymer microfibers are blown into the air every time we wash our clothes. There is plastic dust all around us. And new studies are being published every year on how chemicals in them lay at the basis of disturbance of hormonal balance, malfunctioning of the immune system, and problems with reproduction. This is serious.

Enough arguments to call for change, right? Right??! “There is no such thing as away,” says Leeson. Avoiding plastic, especially the single-use types, is crucial. With a bit of common sense and the right mindset, one gets far. Don’t expect to see change, if you don’t make one. From now on, every time your addiction for plastic longs, remember your new mantra ‘refuse, reduce, recycle‘.

Want to see the documentary or organize a screening? More info here.

Facts in this article were presented y the panelists or experts featured in the documentary, who base themselves on scientific research. Some of the sources can be found here.