During a recent business trip, I was giving a talk to a group of educated professionals. In the room, there were garbage cans sitting right next to a recycling bin. I was surprised to see numerous plastic bottles that had just been thrown into the garbage with a recycling bin a mere two feet away. After rescuing the bottles, I began to think about how we have become a throw-away society. I was shocked to learn that less than eight per cent of plastic is recycled and less than two per cent of plastic bags are recycled. By the hotel pool on that same trip, tables were filled with plastic water bottles, plastic straws and plastic plates all destined to be thrown away.
Most of us live with the daily illusion that we can simply throw things away, but the reality is there is no such place as "away." One of the most visible symbols of the impact of all this plastic are the oceans which are choking on all this plastic garbage.
It is estimated that 2.5 million water bottles are thrown away in the United States alone every single hour and between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic shopping bags are thrown away per year worldwide. An estimated six to 10 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year. Turtles, dolphins and other marine species are swallowing plastic by mistake, and because plastic is non-biodegradable, it breaks down into tiny particles that lantern fish feed on, mistaking it for plankton. These fish are eaten by larger fish, and the toxins move right up the food chain and end up on our dinner table. Over one million sea-birds will die from ingesting plastic this year alone, Greenpeace estimates.
There are many regions in the ocean that now have more plastic than plankton. One of these areas is in the North Pacific Ocean known as the Pacific Gyre. The ocean currents force floating debris into an area the size of Texas and it is so laden with plastic, it has been dubbed The Garbage Patch. It is estimated that there are now six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton in the Pacific Gyre.
The unnecessary use of disposable plastic also adds to greenhouse gasses adding to the growing problem of a steadily warming planet (remember Tornadoes in January in North Carolina for the first time ever). It is, at times daunting, to face the fact that seemingly insignificant choices that we make every day, like using a straw when we could sip, or using a plastic water bottle instead of a metal bottle, and getting a plastic bag at the grocery store are part of a chain leading to such consequences. There are many efforts going on to reduce plastic garbage but it's barely putting a dent in the situation.
The No Plastic, No Excuses Pledge
While I was writing my sixth book, Stepping Up -- How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything, I was deeply moved by the amazing stories of people I interviewed. The thing that impressed me most was how these ordinary people saw a problem and thought, "Why shouldn't I do something about that?" Stories like the women who tackled female poverty in Uganda by holding bead parties, or the group of ecologists and journalists who confronted the Russian whaling fleet, leading to a ban on commercial whaling, or the two kids who stood up to one bully igniting a "pink shirt" day movement.
The tipping point came when I watched the trailer for the forthcoming documentary, Midway Journey, a Chris Jordan film about albatross chicks dying from ingesting plastic on Midway Island in the Pacific. I was horrified and kept thinking there must be a simple way that the average person can do something and get engaged on this issue.
That is when I decided to challenge people to take a pledge to refuse to use three products: Plastic water bottles, plastic shopping bags and plastic straws. It is a pledge I took myself about a year ago and my life has been none the worse for the choice. By purchasing a few metal water bottles, deciding to sip my drinks instead of sucking them, and keeping a few cloth shopping bags in my car, I have eliminated a significant portion of the plastic I use. I knew that asking people to give up all plastic might be too challenging, but if I could inspire others to give up the same three items that I eliminated, collectively this could make a huge impact.
You might wonder if taking this pledge will make a difference. In my book, I try to counter the idea that one person can't make a difference by showing the power of what I call "aggregate influence," which means one person times many adding up to massive change.
So I started www.noplasticpledge.com, which tracks the number of people who have taken the pledge, educates people about the issue of plastic garbage, and links people to other organizations that are tackling the issue.
My goal is ambitious -- to get one million to take the pledge in 2012 and 100 million by the end of 2013. My vision is that entire schools, families and workplaces will choose to take the simple pledge. Even if you take the pledge you probably won't be 100 per cent pure, but even if we reduce our use of these three products by 90 per cent, we can eliminate 170 billion pieces of plastic garbage every single year! The goal is big and some would say naive, but if I discovered anything in interviewing people for my book Stepping Up, it was that every person who accomplished anything had people telling them it could not be done.
I hope you will join me in proving them wrong. Take the pledge today and pass on the word. www.noplasticpledge.com