Joe walks down the street, his smile wide. He gets a takeaway coffee – flat white with one sugar – from his local café. At the supermarket, he gets a muffin – complete with plastic knife and butter – a bag of cashews and a bottle of water. That’s brekkie and morning tea sorted. For lunch, Joe picks up an $11 Indian lunch special with rice and extra papadums. There’s a whole bunch of plastic cutlery in there, but who can be bothered dealing with the office dishwasher?
Joe Bloggs may be a tidy Kiwi, but ‘tidy’ is not the kind of Kiwi that New Zealand needs right now. It’s fine to keep rubbish off the streets, but the real problem is the amount of plastic being used and thrown away on a daily basis. Let’s have a look then, at some of the very real facts about single use plastics (or SUPs). Joe would be horrified to learn, for example, that of the 322 metric tonnes of plastic produced each year worldwide, only 14 percent are recycled. Or that every year, New Zealanders go through enough plastic bottles to fill 700 jumbo jets.
SUPs are everywhere. Check out Joe’s bag of cashews, his plastic knife and butter, his Indian takeaways. Each of these items will end up in landfills or, worse still, the sea, where they will stick around for up to a thousand years. That’s a really long time. And despite the common misconception that SUPs are only found on the ocean’s surface, plastics have been found
10 kilometres below the surface. It’s estimated that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by weight; not great news for anyone who enjoys a plate of sashimi. Then, there are plastic bags. A single plastic bag can break down into over a million bits of microplastic, each bit toxic. Almost half of the world’s seabirds are said to have ingested plastic, and the numbers look only to be going up.
Did you know that New Zealanders go through around 295 million takeaway coffee cups a year, almost of all which end up in landfills? Even coffee cups with disposable lids, made from plant-based materials like corn starch, pose a problem. Although these lids are technically compostable, there is little information for consumers about what to do with them, or about the difference between recycling and composting in general. As a result, most of these lids also end up in landfills, where they release a concerning amount of methane.
SUPs can also have severe health concerns for humans. Microplastic waste is very good at soaking up harmful toxins that are in the ocean. Many of these toxins are endocrine disruptors – chemicals that interfere with hormone functions. For the fish that eat theses microplastics, this can mean stunted growth and serious reproductive challenges. Endocrine disruptors can also cause problems higher up the food chain, with fish-eating humans susceptible to issues including birth defects and increased risk of cancer. Although research in this area is still relatively new, things aren’t looking good.
So, what is the solution to all of this? How can we make a change that lasts a lifetime? It all starts with people. ‘The most important thing is to increase people’s awareness about the critical issues involved,’ says Trisia Farrelly, environmental anthropologist and co-director of Massey University’s Political Ecology Research Centre. ‘Only when citizens know and are concerned, pushing local and central government to make significant changes, will things begin to look up. By knowing what to do and why they’re doing it, things have the potential to change very quickly.’
Luckily for us, New Zealand has plenty of people doing the right thing. Our wonderful partner charity Sustainable Coastlines organise regular beach clean-ups around New Zealand, provide education to stop litter at its source, and support others to spread this work far and wide. So far, Sustainable Coastlines and its growing network of ambassadors have removed nearly 1.5 million litres of rubbish from New Zealand beaches. Not too shabby at all. Well, actually, quite shabby for a country that prides itself on being clean and green.
In early August, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage announced that single use plastic shopping bags will be phased out of New Zealand over the next twelve months. ‘Just like climate change, we’re taking meaningful steps to reduce plastics pollution so we don't pass this problem to future generations,’ Jacinda Ardern said. This, alongside a petition signed by 65,000 New Zealanders to ban plastic bags outright, illustrates the huge amount of public support behind the government’s decision. Ms Ardern also stated that solving our plastic problem was the single biggest subject school children wrote to her about, holding up a stack of the children's' letters to show just how many impassioned young people have had their say.
The announcement was supported by Sustainable Coastlines. ‘Today marks a big victory for the people of Aotearoa and for the places we love,’ stated co-founder Camden Howitt. ‘It shows us how strong our voices are, no matter how old or young. It shows that if we stand up for our values, our leaders will listen.’ The announcement will help to remove around 750 million plastic bags each year from New Zealand’s waste stream and environment; the equivalent of 154 bags per person.
In the meantime, remember that every little bit counts.
Instead of grabbing a takeaway coffee on the way to work, why not leave home five minutes earlier and enjoy one at your favourite café or simply carry a KeepCup in your bag or leave one on your desk? Ditch the plastic drink bottles and get a stainless steel insulated bottle; it’ll keep your water cool and you even cooler. Pick up your own Tupperware container, say no to plastic cutlery when you’ve got the real stuff at home, Honeywrap your sandwiches and don’t accept every bag the checkout operators throw your way. It’s okay to say no.
Keep informed, be interested, ask questions and never underestimate the power of suggestion in your workplace or with that one unsustainable mate in your group that seems to insist coffee tastes better from the takeaway cup. And when you see your old friend Joe Bloggs around the office, put your arm around his shoulder and tell him a couple of things. Being tidy is good, but being responsible is better.
Words and modelling by Telford Mills. Images by Pat Shepherd.