On my eighth hour of dragging my surveying equipment across an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) in the austral summer of 2019, I spotted a glimmer of white in some cobbles behind a beach ridge. As I neared, I realized it was a tube of toothpaste on an island along the Antarctic Peninsula. There wasn’t another set of human beings outside of our research group for several hundred miles – and even then, there were only about 30. This was the onset of my realization of the severity of mankind’s impact on nature through product packaging. Sure, I had heard about it before, I grew up in the most polluted state in America, Louisiana, but seeing trash in an area as pristine as this was an eye-opening experience.
I suggest investing in increasing production and scaling implementation of natural polymers such as those formed from seaweed. Humans have grown accustomed to faster lifestyles with the explosion of international travel in the past 50 years. The world has shrunk and the increase in single-use items is noted everywhere we turn. However, these single-use options do not have to be created from petrochemicals that take thousands of years to break down. With widespread implementation of biodegradable – not just particularizing like the process petrochemical-based plastics break down into microplastics – the accumulation in the oceans would cease to be a problem. There is no shortage of solutions to today’s problems ranging from electric cars to reducing plastic waste, the issue is always the lag of material science. We need better batteries, natural plastics, renewable and endless energy sources, the list goes on.
Some of these solutions have been created, but the science must meet the market and then the scale must match the demand. For the demand to exist, the price must meet existing options on the market for packaging. Currently the cheapest options for packaging materials that eventually turn into waste, and then potentially finds its way to the ocean, are not using natural polymers for packaging. If this technology was invested in by private and public money, through subsidies, the tech would evolve and the portion that made its way to the ocean would decrease. The packaging waste that did make its way to the ocean would break down before it had a chance to accumulate and do any damage to the ecosystem.
Counterarguments may include, but are not limited to, the inclination for people to pollute more if they don’t think there are any long-term impacts when throwing out a product that biodegrades, or the application of that same thought to products that do not use this new material science technology. I envision a world where the government doesn’t need to step in and regulate issues like this, but sometimes there is not enough time for the market to find its way to the best allocation of goods. Especially when the impacts of a company’s choices are felt where it does business. The impacts of how a company does business are felt by environments many miles away or felt by generations far into the future. If there is no fiduciary responsibility or regulatory requirement, a company likely will not implement these new technologies. All these issues are compounded when the anti-science, anti-environmentally conscious movements are taken into consideration.
I believe what we need is a unified more towards bioplastics and a tighter regulation by governments on the national level across the globe. The time for lip-service for protecting the environment is over and the time for action has arrived long ago. We should act now.
Essay by: Cameron Gernant
University of Southern California