Nationwide we HAUL it ALL!  Services start at $9.95, ANY SIZE… 7 days a week year round.

Faster than Amazon, Hauling items within Hours!  Learn More about SERVICES

Haultail is Nationwide from Courier to Big and Bulky Rapid Delivery. Learn More about LOCATIONS

  • Download now!

Everyone needs to shut the hell up about plastic pollution

climate change

Retailers and consumers have made strides in reducing the amount of plastic packaging used. But easy wins distract us from the real climate crisis

In 2012, Boyan Slat hatched a plan to rid the oceans of plastic waste. In a TEDx talk he gave in Delft the 18-year-old Dutch student imagined a giant, floating device that would funnel 55 shipping container’s worth of plastic pollution out of the Pacific Ocean every single day.

Slat’s talk – accompanied by photos of seals trapped in fishing nets and seabirds with stomachs full of plastic – captured the imagination of the public and media. Despite criticism from marine biologists, who argued that his device could end up harming wildlife, Slat and his startup, The Ocean Cleanup, netted £24.4 million in funding over the next seven years.

While countries dithered over how best to reduce their carbon footprints – and others wondered if they should bother at all – people could agree on one thing: plastic was bad and getting as much out of our oceans as possible was a good thing. But what if our obsession with ocean plastic is distracting us from the much bigger picture?

In a world of grim environmental news, tackling plastic pollution is one of the few areas that people in the UK can feel cheerful about. In the wake of 2015’s plastic bag charge, the number of single-use plastic bags given out by England’s seven biggest supermarkets fell by 83 per cent – a reduction of over six billion plastic bags. Buoyed by this success, in May 2019 the government confirmed it would also ban plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds in England from April 2020.

Consumers, too, have been eager to parade their plastic-free credentials. In December 2017, Argos reported that sales of reusable coffee cups were up 537 per cent on the previous year. Others are embracing plastic-free shops in an effort to cut down on plastic packaging. Earlier this month, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Asda announced they would phase out hard-to-recycle black plastic packaging by the end of 2019.

But the war on plastic might be more about making us feel better than actually tackling the climate crisis. In an editorial for the environmental journal Marine Policy conservationists Richard Stafford and Peter Jones say climate change and overfishing are both greater threats to oceans than plastic pollution. “While small steps have been taken or are planned to help reduce plastic waste, this should not prevent the large-scale systemic changes needed internationally to tackle all environmental concerns,” they argue.

KeepCups, plastic bag charges and ocean cleanup missions are all great, but they imply that fixing the climate crisis requires tinkering around the edges of our lives and not real change. It sets the expectation that we can innovate – or buy – our way out of the climate crisis rather than making the systemic changes needed to stop the worst happening.

This might seem overly pessimistic. After all, it really is a good thing that people in the UK are using fewer plastic bags than ever before, and that coffee shops are pushing customers to reject disposable cups. But there’s a real danger that these distractions mean that we overlook the things that make a much larger impact on the world.

In September, the US consultancy A.T. Kearney asked 1,500 Germans what they thought had the strongest impact on reducing the carbon dioxide (CO2) footprint of an average person. Of the seven choices listed, 22 per cent of them thought that cutting out plastic bags had the biggest impact on reducing CO2 – more than any other option. In reality, this saved the least of any of the proposed lifestyle changes: a reduction of just three kilograms of CO2 per person per year. Cutting out meat would reduce emissions by 450 kilograms, but respondents put it second-bottom in their ranking of the most impactful things they could do to reduce CO2 emissions.

In other words, we drastically overestimate the environmental impact of the small changes we are prepared to make, while underestimating the impact of changes that seem more extreme. These results weren’t from a scientific study – so take them with a pinch of salt – but they imply that our beliefs conform to what we think is tolerable, not what is best for the environment.

Technology offers us another way out of this climate cul-de-sac. “Technology is the most potent agent of change. It is an amplifier of our human capabilities,” wrote Slat in The Economist in 2017. “Whereas other change-agents rely on reshuffling the existing building blocks of society, technological innovation creates entirely new ones, expanding our problem-solving toolbox.”

But the climate crisis isn’t something that we can innovate our way out of. Technologies such as carbon capture will have a role to play, but the bulk of the work of reducing carbon emissions can only be made by us rejecting en masse processes that release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It’ll mean reducing flights, changing our diets so they’re less reliant on red meat, phasing out fossil fuel burning cars and switching to renewable sources of energy.

Even when it comes to our oceans, it’s not clear that cutting out plastic packaging is the best thing we can do to help them. A 2019 report from Greenpeace found that lost and abandoned fishing gear makes up the majority of large plastic waste in the ocean. A study into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the vast raft of floating debris that the Ocean Cleanup is attempting to mop up – estimated that 86 per cent of its mass was made up of fishing nets.

Plastic isn’t like greenhouse gas emissions. TV shows such as Blue Planet II showcase the tragic impact of discarded plastic on wildlife with visceral impact. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is an invisible and slow killer. Plastic is also something that is easy enough for those in privileged financial situations to cut out of their lives to some extent without suffering any great losses, while entire economies are built on the premise of taking fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them.

But the war on plastic has taught us one thing about tackling climate change. It’s that with a little government pressure, and enough societal will, big swings in behaviour can happen in a surprisingly short space of time. Now it’s time to repeat that feat where it really matters.


This story originally published on


We updated our privacy policy as of February 24, 2020. Learn about our personal information collection practices here.