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Cleaning our way out of our plastic crisis: coastal cleanups and beyond

Cleaning up our plastic crisis: Coastal cleaning and surpassing

Save the date! September 16, 2017 is the International Coastal Cleanup Day. From activities previously carried out by only a small group of ecological leaders, coastal cleanup has become a major event. Last year, a large network in the United States involved nearly 800,000 volunteers internationally. Since its launch in 1985, it claims to have more than 12 million people involved in the clean-up work. According to a survey conducted by the Marine Conservation Association, more than 8 million kilograms of garbage were collected last year. In 2016, the top three items collected were cigarette butts (nearly 2 million), plastic beverage bottles (only over 500,000), and plastic bottle caps (over 800,000).

Is coastal cleanup the solution to the garbage problem?

It is undeniable that coastal cleanups can be used as awareness-raising tools because they highlight how our daily products generate a lot of marine debris. It also shows the huge amount of plastic in the ocean. In fact, it is said that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, and many of us are familiar with photos of marine creatures full of plastic in their belly. The debate did not adequately cover the economic consequences.

Currently, expenditures on marine debris are most commonly used to remove debris or restore damage caused by marine debris. This expenditure represents the treatment of symptoms rather than cure. On the contrary, the real impact does not stop there, because they include damage to other economic activities, such as fishing or tourism. Therefore, although it may be cheaper than inaction, recent estimates suggest that this cleanup is not suitable for future strategies.

On the one hand, the level of plastic consumption plays an important role in the overall picture of plastic waste in marine and terrestrial environments and needs to be addressed. On the other hand, the role of plastic production is as large as that of consumption, or even greater. This industry is an upstream source of marine debris and must be supervised. Therefore, government legislation helps reduce plastic pollution. The European Commission is expected to release a plastics strategy in December 2017, and a movement is stepping up its demands for an ambitious strategy, especially with regard to legally binding targets to reduce the use of plastics.

How can we reduce the amount of plastic used in Europe?

The first step is to start reducing the production of single-use plastics, as alternatives already exist in most cases. For example, grocery stores sell large quantities of locally sourced food and beverage products, where local residents can buy pasta, wine, oil, and many other necessities without having to throw away any packaging. This kind of business is increasingly profitable not only in cities, but also in towns and villages. This is usually the result of an active political push in the right direction, leading residents to realize and be able to implement benign consumption habits. Soon, a large part of the civil society composed of individuals, businesses and organizations has begun to work hard to reduce excessive consumption of plastics. It is time for the government to let these seeds germinate.

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