Realizations from 10 years of plastic pollution presentations
I began my own Wayfinder journey over 10 years ago as a second-year college student. In 2010, the topic of plastic pollution was still a fringe issue. In high school, a few years before, I had my first introduction to the topic, when Marcus Eriksen (of 5 Gyres) came to my Independent Research elective class and presented about his Junk Raft adventure in the North Pacific. At the time, the presentation didn’t really stick – I was more interested in another environmental project, trying to grow my own kelp to sequester carbon. But later in college, when I needed to find a summer internship, I stumbled upon Algalita’s website. Like so many others, I was struck by the images of the majestic albatross birds and their horrible encounters with plastic pollution. I was hooked and though I didn’t land the internship, I was determined to find a way to do my oceanography Bachelor’s Thesis on the topic, despite the fact that my department did not study the topic. After graduating, I moved back to Long Beach, my hometown, and Algalita’s headquarters, and started working part-time for Algalita to help grow the education programs.
Today, plastic pollution is at the forefront of the environmental and sustainability fields. Most people I talk with today have at least heard the term, but also usually know some details about the issue. As I reflect back over the last decade that I’ve been presenting about plastic pollution, I have come to notice some incredible changes in our Zeitgeist, and I want to share those insights with you.
We are asking better questions.
A decade ago, we were solely focused on the symptoms we were observing. Now our thoughts are centered around the root causes, deep connections, and synergistic solutions. When Capt. Moore began this work in the mid 90’s the first symptoms of our plastic dependency were being discovered. Through his expeditions to the North Pacific gyre where plastic was accumulating thousands of miles offshore, he brought back news of the first signs that something was wrong. Like when you’re getting a cold, you first notice the slight tickles in your nose. These early symptoms, the impacts on the oceans and its fauna, were incredibly concerning for environmental scientists, biologists, and naturalists, however the remoteness of the issue meant that for most people who did not have the time or energy to care, it was easy to ignore.
Over the last decade, countless individuals, organizations, and institutions have joined the plastic pollution movement, each bringing their own curiosity, care, and special skills to the space. At the same time, production of plastic has continued to increase in volume and intensity. More products than ever incorporate some sort of plastic, a broad collection of materials synthesized from fossil fuels. As communities develop, and countries around the world grow, demand for and access to plastic products increases. The fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are also pushing supply and relentlessly expanding their markets. The movement against plastics has matured as we’ve begun to reveal the connections between this issue and climate change, environmental justice, waste colonialism, and human health.
All of this has been reflected in the gradual change in questions I would receive from my audiences, mostly middle school, high school, and college students. Ten years ago, the questions would be:
- “How big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?”, and
- “which ocean animal is most impacted by plastic pollution?”.
Whereas, today the questions sound like:
- “Will there be a way to get rid of plastic without putting other peoples’ lives or homes at risk?” or
- “It appears that oil companies are a major factor for the spike in plastic production; is there a way to convince them that what they are doing is hurtful to the planet and all of humanity?” and
- “When plastic products were first being introduced in the 1940’s and 1950’s, did people know that plastic doesn’t decompose? If so, did anyone foresee the problem it would later become?”
This change in awareness shows the immense success of the thousands of people working around the world to change the narrative. We have gone all the way from a tickle in our noses, past the runny nose and cough, to a doctor’s visit with a diagnosis and treatment plan. We are aware of the root causes of the plastic blight on planet Earth. We know that it is a material that nature does not digest, and that we cannot effectively recycle. We know that its fossil fuel origins are incompatible with our climate change solutions, and that the suite of chemical additives used in plastic are incompatible with the long-term health of our species.
We know what the truest solutions are – it’s just a matter of working together to make them a reality.
In our quest to relearn how to harmonize with Nature, we need to learn from her. We need to lean in together, strengthen our connections with each other, and be respectful and supportive of each other as we navigate these rough waters. I have so much hope that we will succeed. This next generation has already shown that they have the capacity to hold complex issues in their minds, and they are rearing to go make the changes we need.
I want to acknowledge the many people who have helped make this happen, including the many educators who I’ve been able to work with. Specifically, I want to thank Capt. Charles Moore who has dedicated over 30 decades to this issue and who has succeeded in inspiring countless people around the world to care deeply about and act of this issue. I am so honored to be able to work with him on a daily basis and learn from his widsom and experience. I also want to thank Katie Allen for being my role model and for bringing me onto this team. Her dedication to educating about this topic in a real and personal way keeps me going every day as I strive to support her and Charlie’s vision: a world where plastic pollution is unthinkable.
Author: Anika Ballent, Education Director Algalita
Since joining the team in 2012, Anika has designed and led Algalita’s educational experiences. She finds inspiration in seeing the global shifts in thinking and awareness around the systemic issues of our time, and is keeping her eye set on the vast potential of our collective horizon.