Let’s Break Free From Plastic

About 15 years ago I was on a remote beach in Oregon, surfing. Accessing this beach requires about a two-mile hike through primeval, old growth forest. Once I arrived, I emerged onto a vast and open spit of sand colonized by sea lions, crabs and birds. The view was serene and timeless.

While playing fetch that day with my dog, Porkchop, I spotted a mass of something out of place, strange looking flotsam crashing ashore with the waves. Porkchop and I walked over to investigate and found a miniature gyre of plastic from all over the world—plastic bottles with Chinese characters, packaging that had come down the river from Portland, abandoned fishing gear, and disintegrating Styrofoam.

At first, it wasn’t the environmental concern that got me, it was the aesthetic incongruence that this trash represented. The colors and shapes were all wrong against the backdrop of this beautiful place. Truthfully, it was a gut-punch.

At the time I was a journalist and, being curious by nature, I started Googling ‘ocean plastic’ and reading everything I could about the subject. What I didn’t know at the time was that this curiosity would change the course of my life, give me a new purpose, and ultimately lead me to journey around the world studying and bearing witness to one of the most pervasive forms of pollution the planet had ever seen.

Quite soon after that trip to the beach, I started volunteering and quickly became a leader in my Surfrider Foundation chapter. Our small team of volunteers set out to ban plastic bags in Portland, Oregon and after four years of work, we succeeded.

Later, I took a break from my day job and joined up with a couple of visionaries mounting ‘The 5 Gyres Project’ to sail the world’s oceans and conduct research to determine how much plastic was out there. Multiple expeditions to each of the five ocean gyres over several years enabled us to estimate that the oceans contain 5.25 trillion particles of plastic with a weight of over 270,000 metric tons.

It was on one of those 5Gyres expeditions, on America’s Great Lakes, that we discovered tiny bits of plastic by the millions suspended in the water, what we later learned were plastic microbeads from personal care products like facial scrubs and toothpaste. Soon after, I joined the team at The Story of Stuff Project, where I helped to lead a successful campaign to eliminate microbeads from personal care products in the U.S. With the Story of Stuff Community’s enthusiastic support—and with partners all over the world, including 5Gyres—we removed an entire class of plastics from commerce.

I’m very proud of that victory. But despite our best efforts to document and chip away at the plastic pollution problem over the last decade, it is still growing. Indeed, it’s now estimated that plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050 if we don’t dramatically change course.

In North America alone, the average person uses more than 300 pounds of plastic per year—almost one pound of plastic consumed per day. Western Europeans are close behind in their consumption, and plastic usage is growing in developing countries as well. If industry projections hold true, we’ll see this footprint doubled inside of twenty years. This simply cannot happen.trash_640x320

At the end of last year, with a microbeads ban in the U.S. secured, our team at The Story of Stuff Project took a step back and to think about what we had achieved, what lessons we’d learned and how we could build on those efforts globally to turn the tide once and for all.

What we decided was that the problem of marine plastic pollution was well established—and that people care—but that the problem was degrees of scale larger than the present effort to address it. Environmental groups like ours had successfully highlighted the problem, particularly in coastal regions in the global North like our home state of California, but the solutions proposed have typically been local or regional in scale and have focused largely on recycling and, to some extent, incrementally reducing the consumption of single-use, disposable plastics.

For its part, the plastics industry has publicly promoted recycling as the optimal solution, but has resisted taking financial responsibility for the associated costs. Privately, these companies have increasingly advocated for incineration to combat the leakage of plastics into the ocean, particularly in Asia. It is not hard to see why.incinerator_640x320

Lax environmental standards and the availability of cheap labor have put the developing world, particularly the nations of South East Asia, on the receiving end of global plastic waste exports, with China importing nearly 80% of the world’s plastic waste. As with climate change and many other environmental threats, the plastic consumption of rich nations is having an adverse and asymmetrical affect on poorer nations. But ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is no more a solution today than it has ever been.

About a year ago, staff from The Story of Stuff Project were invited to meet with a representative of Oak Foundation, a European environmental philanthropy, along with our friends at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), a network of zero waste advocates with a strong presence in Asia. Our goal was to think through what it would take to both coordinate and grow the existing global effort to address the plastic pollution problem.

As we analyzed the efforts of groups all over the world, several things became clear. First, ocean-focused groups, particularly those in the U.S. and Europe, weren’t in league with the grassroots activists working far upstream of the ocean on waste issues, and that that had to change. We also recognized that many of the fast-moving consumer brands that push plastic (and create waste) were located in the global North, but that those products were having a disproportionate effect on communities in the global South, whose groups rarely had a seat at the table when ocean pollution was being discussed.

So with Oak Foundation support we built a committee of Europeans, North Americans, and Asians to start developing a global strategy to combat plastic pollution that was inclusive, collaborative, and just for all people and the planet. Earlier this year, we invited representatives of 60 organizations from around the world to a working meeting in Tagaytay, Philippines to inform and help build on this draft strategic framework.


The result was a collective vision and set of principles that we’re calling The Tagaytay Accord, as well as a series of proposed collaborative projects we plan to launch in 2017. This fall, we announced this movement effort and asked other groups to join us. Within days, more than 500 organizations signed on, and agreed to build this movement together.

We’re calling this movement #BreakFreeFromPlastic.

At the core of our work is a major investment in community-based zero waste experiments in areas of Southeast Asia where the most plastic is ‘leaking’ into the ocean due to under-resourced (or non-existent) waste infrastructure. GAIA members and others in the region have developed scalable, city-based solutions that create jobs with good wages, divert the lion’s share of waste from landfill, stop the leakage of plastics into the environment, improve the livability of communities, and perhaps most importantly, save an enormous amount of money.

But plastic isn’t just a management challenge. Any successful strategy to solve the problem also requires us to reduce the amount of plastic in the system—a maxim that the plastic and consumer goods industries certainly don’t want to hear.

And so we’ll complement investments in zero waste efforts in Asia with upstream work to reduce the production and sale of problematic, low-value plastics, including the roughly half of plastic that is disposed of after one use.

For more than four decades, Big Plastic has been telling us it’s ‘our fault’ that pollution happens as a result of plastic use. But we in the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement know that it’s the fault of the companies who make it, market it, and distribute it throughout the world, often in places with no infrastructure to deal with it. And we’ve set out to change that.

In 2017, we’ll launch dozens of high impact, coordinated projects, with a focus on getting resources into the hands of the brilliant but unsung zero waste heroes in Southeast Asia. We’ll also identify the worst offending products globally, especially ones with no value at their end of life, and deploy targeted corporate campaigns to eliminate them from the system. And together with groups around the world, we’ll work to change the ‘better living through chemistry’ narrative that’s been shoved down our throats by industry for decades, using a series of films, media interventions, and coordinated messaging to help people understand the plastics system and lift up true solutions.

While we’ll be playing a role in a variety of these initiatives, The Story of Stuff Project will focus initially on our strong suit: storytelling. Later this year, we’ll start developing one of our most ambitious film projects since the original Story of Stuff movie. ‘The Story of Plastic,’ as we’re calling it, will help break down misconceptions, lift up solutions and move viewers from concern to action. In the coming year, you’ll see that story, as well as many shorter stories on the issues I’ve already mentioned, highlighting the positive solutions our movement offers and the innovative individuals and groups getting the job done.

I’m confident that the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement we’re building is the beginning of something big, elevating the world we want and charting a path to get there, rather than just another attempt to manage the world we have.

For my part, as a part of this movement, I’m fighting for beauty; and the opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. That’s the biggest battle. Whether you care more about the effects of this plastic Stuff on people or on the planet, there is room in this movement for you to join us. And make no mistake, we need you.

Are you ready for action?

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