How ditching plastic weighs up in the scope of global climate change


Words || Brittany Hanouch

In the past few years, there seems to have been an insurgence of environmental activism around the issue of plastic pollution in the environment, with the concept of going zero waste starting to infiltrate the media. State governments have banned plastic bags one after another — NSW being the only exception, thanks Gladys. Bars and restaurants are banning plastic straws, Woolies and Coles have phased out single use bags, South Australia is now considering a total ban on single use plastic items… it seems that everywhere we look, progress is being made on seriously reducing the amount of plastic waste that we throw out.

Despite these recent changes, every year eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean. Plastics and microplastics wreak havoc on marine biodiversity and end up in the food chain, eventually being eaten by people too. There are plenty of resources available on the devastating effects of plastics on the environment and no denying that this needs to be addressed. So, the more environmentally conscious of us stop using straws, buy some indie tote bags for our groceries, carry around metal water bottles and the works. Encouraging consumers to make responsible choices regarding their plastic consumption is seen as a vital step to saving all green turtles and reducing greenhouse emissions from landfill. But how much of a difference can these actions really make? Is it worth reducing our individual ecological footprint when compared to the impacts of inevitable, potentially catastrophic climate change?

The short answer is yes. Over time, the reduction of your individual plastic consumption and waste adds up and reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfill emitting greenhouse gases, or in the oceans harming marine life. If enough people start to do that, it ends up significantly reducing landfill emissions and pollution. Choosing more eco-friendly options like bamboo straws and KeepCups also creates a market for these products. Retailers and larger companies may start to shift away from producing single use plastics. This in turn reduces the demand on resources to produce plastic, including non-renewable energy and oil, the extraction of which is highly damaging to natural environments.

The more accurate answer however, is that zero-waste lifestyles alone are not going to effectively mitigate climate change. A 2013 study found that two thirds of anthropogenic (human-made) emissions came from 90 companies, the majority of which are oil, gas and coal energy companies. When compared to the scale of emissions being released by these companies, our individual efforts to live an eco-friendly lifestyle by ditching plastic and going zero-waste only form part of a broader effort to save the planet.

We need to start holding these companies accountable for their actions. Developed countries need to grow a pair and work together on a global scale to introduce policies and legislation that target large-scale greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalism as a movement also needs to place an equal focus on placing pressure on large companies rather than just focusing on consumer behaviour. As individuals, we should be striving to reduce our plastic waste and do our best to reduce our emissions but we should also be educating ourselves on the illegal and unsustainable actions of giant fossil fuel corporations. Some things we can do include supporting online campaigns targeting companies such as BP, Chevron and Adani, attending protests, signing petitions and meeting with local MP’s to talk about climate change and how they’re planning to address the issue.

The more I learn about climate change, the more frustrated I become with the prioritisation of profit over people and the planet by corporations and governments. It’s clear that our government doesn’t take climate change seriously and isn’t going to take serious action, so in the meantime, I’m going to be drinking out of my KeepCup while I protest alongside environmental groups and demand climate justice.