Don’t Let Plastic Pollution Distract You

Globally, over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year. In 2015, an estimated 55 percent of global plastic waste was discarded, 25 percent was incinerated, and 20 percent recycled1. Discarded plastic can end up contaminating surrounding landscapes or even enter the oceans and impact marine wildlife.

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In the recent years, the issue of plastic pollution has increasingly captured people’s attention, leading to international policies and projects aimed at achieving a more circular economy whereby plastic waste is minimised.

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Nonetheless, the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife populations remains unquantified to date, and there is no full consensus on whether the plastic issue has already exceeded safe planetary boundaries2. In contrast, the unsurmountable impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss through land-use change and overharvesting are well understood, and in these cases we are already no longer operating within safe planetary boundaries. We have significantly less than a decade to effectively curb climate change3 and mitigate biodiversity loss4 or face irreversible damage and disastrous consequences.

These considerations recently led to a scientific discussion on whether the increasing media attention on plastic pollution may be distracting people from the more pressing and urgent issues of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Governments may also preferentially implement plans addressed to the mitigation of plastic pollution rather than climate change or biodiversity loss, which are more challenging to tackle. Ultimately, this may even give them a “pro-environment badge” when in fact the main and most urgent issues remain largely unaddressed.

This was the argument brought forward by Prof Richard Stafford of the Bournemouth University and Dr Peter Jones of University College London in a 2019 paper published in the scientific journal Marine Policy5.

Replying to Stafford and Jones, a group of researchers argued that, while climate change and biodiversity loss are more pressing issues than plastic pollution, “we simply do not have the luxury of tackling environmental issues one at a time”6.

Stafford and Jones then responded, reaffirming their point7. This time, however, the two authors cited new research which, as they had initially feared, suggested that when people engage in a first pro-environmental behaviour they are then less likely to engage in other pro-environmental behaviours8. In other words, the authors say, the “optimism engendered by reducing plastic consumption could lead to apathy and continued flights, consumerist over-consumption, etc.”.

This may be particularly crucial because the actions required to mitigate the plastic pollution issue are less demanding than those needed for the mitigation of climate change or biodiversity loss. For instance, avoiding single-use plastics is conceivably easier than changing one’s diet plan or flying less. Following this logic, one may feel relieved to be using a paper straw while sitting on a plane, eating a beef sandwich.

Stafford and Jones conclude their second paper by saying: “We remain concerned about plastic pollution, but also about the risk that addressing this will provide a convenient distraction to addressing the more critical systemic threats of climate change and biodiversity loss, particularly in political arenas.”

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  2. P. Villarrubia-Gómez, S.E. Cornell, and J. Fabres. 2018. Marine plastic pollution as a planetary boundary threat – the drifting piece in the sustainability puzzle. Marine Policy, 96, pp.213-220
  5. Stafford, R. and Jones, P.J., 2019. Viewpoint–Ocean plastic pollution: A convenient but distracting truth?. Marine Policy103, pp.187-191.
  6. Avery-Gomm, S., Walker, T.R., Mallory, M.L. and Provencher, J.F., 2019. There is nothing convenient about plastic pollution. Rejoinder to Stafford and Jones “Viewpoint–Ocean plastic pollution: A convenient but distracting truth?”. Marine Policy106, p.103552.
  7. Stafford, R. and Jones, P.J., 2019. We should not separate out environmental issues, but the current approach to plastic pollution can be a distraction from meaningful action. A response to Avery-Gomm et al. Marine Policy107, p.103585.
  8. A. Maki, A.R. Carrico, K.T. Raimi, H.B. Truelove, B. Araujo, K.L. Yeung, Meta-ana- lysis of pro-environmental behaviour spillover, Nat. Sustain. 2 (2019) 307–315

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