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UNDERCURRENTS   PLASTIC POLLUTION

Turning the tide of public opinion

Fishing and fish-farming communities scattered across the low-lying Obando area of Manila are very susceptible to flooding and rising sea levels

Single-use plastic pollution is ubiquitous and tangible – we can see it on our beaches, roadsides and waterways, and it’s even in the seafood we eat and the tap water we drink. Today, there are endless creative initiatives to help limit plastic pollution, from grassroots beach cleans to campaigns for plasticfree supermarket aisles. The momentum sky-rocketed when the final episode of BBC One’s Blue Planet II, which highlighted global plastic pollution for just six minutes, was watched by 11.91 million people – the highest ever recorded ratings for any Nature programme. In 2018, ‘single-use’ was named Word of the Year by Collins Dictionary while ‘plastic’ was Oxford Dictionaries’ Children’s Word of the Year.

Plastic, once hailed as a wonder material, is the biggest threat to our planet – or so some press coverage would like us to believe. As a result, it is arguably the most engaging environmental catastrophe of our time. But are people seeing the bigger picture?

The current wave of interest in plastic pollution shares many factors with the alarming discovery of the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica in the mid-1980s and the subsequent successful engagement of industry, governments and consumers. This protective layer has significantly recovered since the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) 30 years ago, after the groundbreaking Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed by leading industrial nations in 1987. “There was an obvious cause and effect – it was possible to reduce our usage of CFCs found in aerosols and refrigerants, and manufacturers could stop producing these nasty chemicals in the first place,” says George Marshall, founder of Climate Outreach and author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, who studies how people engage psychologically with climate change.

“That was a very well-constructed problem for us to deal with – it was still complex to understand but more manageable than climate change and similar to single-use plastics in that people could visualise and make sense of it,” explains Marshall, who is concerned that climate change is talked about as an environmental problem. “It’s really an economic and social problem

28 Resurgence & Ecologist

March/April 2019

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