The Plastic Plague

By Sarin Boivin-Picard
Ambassador to the 2017 World Youth Congress
2017 YDC World Bank / International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings Delegate

In 2015, the world embarked on a new and vital journey guided by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which were launched across 193 United Nations member states. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development and its ultimate success relies profoundly on positive action and youth involvement around the globe. To that end, the 7th World Youth Congress was held in Hawaii from June 17 to 25 2017. The Congress had one primary focus: Environmental Sustainability and Global Warming. 

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree on one fact: climate-warming trends over the past century are almost certainly anthropogenic. In other words: likely caused by human activities. Despite the lack of leadership regarding climate change at the national level under the Trump administration, the state of Hawaii, its political leaders, and constituents decided to take action and to build a framework in order to guide their endeavors and monitor their progress related to their sustainable efforts. The Aloha+ Challenge, a public-private partnership that coordinates across government, private sector, and civil society to achieve Hawaii’s 2030 statewide sustainability goals, was the islands’ way of taking local action and adapting the SDGs to local needs and concerns. Amongst the 17 SDGs, one is specifically directed towards “Climate Action”, but I believe that the remaining goals are closely related. In Hawaii, the Aloha+ Challenge, led by the governor, the four county mayors, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Hawaiian State, aims to catalyze action across all spheres of society. The six goals that the State of Hawaii decided to focus on are: clean energy; local food production; natural resource management; smart sustainable communities; green workforce; education; and waste reduction. The latter was of particular interest to me. Therefore, I chose to join the group that would dedicate the whole week to reflect, analyze and develop solutions to one of today’s most alarming issue: marine plastic debris. 

 This ‘plastic plague’ is a worldwide epidemic. It stems from our modern throwaway culture and the very nature of petrochemicals – the main raw material used in the production of plastics and synthetics. Plastic is mostly a durable commodity which does not obey the natural biodegradation laws, which imposes an extreme burden on the ecosystem to replenish itself. Not only are we homo Sapiens or ‘wise men’ depleting our planet’s oil resources to their absolute exhaustion, we are also cramming our landfills and filling our oceans with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of garbage. A United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) study in 2006 reported estimates of 18,000 pieces of plastic per square km floating on the oceans. At this rate, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050, especially if the private sector does not contribute more vigorously to cleaning up its mess and if individuals do not alter their consumption patterns. It is indeed a gloomy picture: humans are slowly replacing tuna fish with Pepsi bottles, coral reefs with plastic bags and phytoplankton with nanoplastics. Humans are obsessed with plastic: we wrap it around anything we buy, eat or drink. We use valueless packaging for less than a minute just to leave it to nature to decompose over 20, or even 50 years. Unfortunately, our behaviours and above all our ignorance of their second and third degree consequences are starting to have disastrous effects on our environment.

The Great Pacific garbage patch, located between Hawaii and California, is strong evidence of the noxious effects of human activities, but more importantly of humans’ disposal of non-biodegradable waste. Plastic waste has aggregated in this specific area because of ocean currents that gather rubbish along coastlines and swirl them into the centre. According to UNEP’s chief scientist, the patch is growing so rapidly that is to be visible from outer space. This has led some to term it the world’s 7th continent – its size equivalent to one third of the landmass of the United States or six times the size of France. However, according to many scientists, it is not massive anthropogenic debris that are the most critical issue, but rather micro- and nanoplastics as these materials are likely to be ingested by animals who mistake them for fish or plankton. 

Ocean debris are particularly deadly for sea animals living in already destroyed marine ecosystems. According to a study by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, more than 90% of the world’s sea birds had eaten colourful plastic items that they mistook for food. For animals highly dependent on the ocean for feeding themselves, this conclusion should greatly concern us as consumers of fish. In 2013, fish provided 3.1 billion people with almost 20% of their intake of animal protein. The declining population rate in seabirds around the globe may in fact be the canary in the coal mine of our unquenchable thirst for plastic.

 For human consumption, it is not the soda bottle cap that is potentially dangerous to our health, it is the plastic found at a microscopic level climbing up the food chain. As these complex polymers become smaller and smaller, they are ingested by fish and later by humans. The story gets even worse as these small particles serve as a magnet for other pollutants such as pesticides and flame retardants. These toxic chemicals increasingly omnipresent in the food we harvest from nature and the water we drink are already present in almost every processed food we consume daily.

The dangerous chemicals of greatest concern include one that has achieved notoriety in recent years: Bisphenol A (BPA) – the industrial chemical used in the manufacturing process of a solid and transparent material called polycarbonate. BPA is also used in the manufacture of epoxy resins that serve as a protective layer inside certain metal cans for food and beverages. According to the US National Library of Medicine, there is growing evidence that BPA may adversely affect humans. The scientific literature demonstrates associations between BPA exposure and adverse perinatal, childhood, and adult health outcomes, including reproductive and developmental effects, metabolic disease, and other health effects. 

Given the degree to which the harmful effects of plastics on human health have already been studied, more concerted global effort to prevent dumping into the ocean is necessary. It is a noble cause to want to clean the ocean from this torrent of plastics, but we must first tackle the source of the problem, not simply its symptoms. However, the best and most actionable solution to our garbage problem is still to drastically reduce our use of plastics and to engage in a collective mind shift regarding the effects of our throwaway culture. 

Besides the unlikely solution of sending big polluters in jail for crimes against humanity, government entities will also have a large role to play in preventing the spread of the plastics crisis. Inflicting serious consequences onto large industrial polluters or heavily subsidizing the R&D in clean technology are possible solutions. However, this will certainly be a tough fight considering the three largest chemical producers had sales of close to 200,000 million USD in 2014.  

 I do believe human ingenuity across the globe will help create and design new solutions to this looming tsunami of trash. Better recycling and innovation in product design are potential solutions. In this sense, every problem is an opportunity for Canada to lead and offer policies that will inspire leaders globally. On the local scale, this is where parents, teachers and young community leaders must come into play. Education plays a crucial role in raising awareness of environmental challenges and shaping the attitudes and behaviors that will make an impact. We must stop debating whether it is a hoax or not and focus on the facts that are already acknowledged. We must teach younger generations science education and denounce supine media coverage. We must emphasize critical thinking and the proper use of evidence within politics and policymaking. We need to make use of the principle of precaution, before we empty the oceans of all their living creatures, sicken our ecosystems and commit environmental suicide. We need renewed environmental laws and rethought priorities. 

The issue is deeply rooted in our consumerist system, a system where the voices of the weak and the voiceless remain curbed. Good and global citizenship is about recognizing the second and third degree consequences of our consumer choices, and in many cases listening to the unheard. The unheard constitute not only the other living organisms with which we share our common biosphere -- our home –but also future generations of mankind. We have to think of how our children will look back to us, and what will they think about the world we left behind for them. This ‘plastic plague’ is not only a matter of justice to our generation of shared life on our planet – it is a matter of inter-generational justice.

As a financier by training, the World Youth Congress has made me come to realize that we should maximize Planet Environmental Health (PEH) growth, not just economic GDP – long term sustainability, not quarterly earnings – and preservation of nature’s capital, not just return on equity invested. The only sure thing is that change starts with oneself. Next time, you’ll know what to answer to the infamous question: “Voulez-vous un sac?” 

I would like to thank the Stevens World Peace foundation, Peace Child International Hawaii, Les Offices Jeunesse Internationaux du Québec (LOJIQ) and Young Diplomats of Canada for their support during the congress.