The next page in the story of water and plastic

By Andy Kenworthy

The British singer Frank Turner wrote: “Our history runs down our rivers. Down our rivers to the sea.”

If so, then what will be our legacy? Currently, intermingled into all our rivers is the saga of more than a century of plastic production. This story has grown louder and louder in recent decades. It is a dark history of litter, microplastics and chemical pollution. It is about fossil fuel based products accelerating the climate crisis. It is about the disruption of life in the seas and on the land.

We are all keen to see less pollution, less litter. We all want rivers and seas that are safe to enjoy and teaming with life. We want a stable climate. We know that means cutting down on plastic production. We must work to rapidly shift to new, less harmful materials for many of the products we use.

We have to get much better at managing the plastic we do use. Where fossil fuel-based plastics are needed, they must be kept in continuous cycles of production and reproduction. We must grow out of trying to bury it in landfills or burn it when we think we are done with it. Or worse still, leave it scattered across our landscapes and seas.

So how can we turn this story around?

We can all cut down our use of single-use plastics like bags, straws and other so called ‘disposable’ items. We can take our own containers and water bottles with us for food and drink on the run. We can take more care to ensure we recycle properly. Whether that’s at home, at work or out and about. And we can take part in beach clean ups and litter picks.

But that will only go so far. This is partly because of the scale of the problems that have built up over time. It’s also because the system of plastic production, distribution and use is huge and complex. It has been woven into many parts of our economy. This is for good reasons. Plastic has been part of what makes that economy possible up until now. Plastic is a fantastic way to protect the myriad of everyday products we take for granted. It enables the supply lines that feed the shelves in the shops.

The nature and scope of the changes we need to make mean that this must be carefully orchestrated. Otherwise we risk creating new problems while we attempt to solve the existing ones. For example, compostable plastics sourced from plants seem like an obvious solution. But most of New Zealand doesn’t yet have the facilities and systems to dispose of these new materials. And commercial composters don’t all want to take this material. It adds no value to their compost. It can cause contamination of commercial compost and recycling facilities with mismatched materials.

So we all need to help to support these new innovations and new systems. Ordinary people, politicians, local authorities and businesses must all help make them work.

The Sustainable Business Network (SBN) is dedicated to ensuring that happens. We are starting with our more than 600 organisations nationwide. We are tackling this challenge in a number of ways.

Cutting plastic pollution is a key part of the GulfX project. We are promoting and supporting the installation of litter traps in storm water drains on business premises to help keep litter out of the sea.

SBN is also working on establishing a circular economy in New Zealand. This about moving on from the linear approach of ‘take, make, waste’ to one where all resources are in continuous cycles of reuse. It includes redesigning the way New Zealand makes, imports uses and reuses plastic packaging, a major source of ocean litter and pollution.

It also includes our recently launched campaign to help businesses take more responsibility for what they make. Over the next two years we will be supporting business to start their own product take back schemes. These give customers the option of sending back used products and packaging to the original suppliers. We will then be encouraging business buyers to ask “what will I do with this at the end of its life?” when buying to help make this “product stewardship” approach much more widespread.

Again, it’s something we all need to support. One of the likely benefits of this approach is less of those products and their materials ending up in the sea.

But we must also go beyond these urgent practical actions. We need to see water more clearly if we are going to clean up our water. For too long we have failed to look beneath its surface. We have a history of believing we can hide our waste and pollution beneath the waves. Of believing they would magically wash it all away. That the life of the water had little to do with our own.

Now we are finally learning they are one and the same. That is how we will build a better future.