Disposing of the Disposable Economy

Ocean plastic pollution is a direct result of our throw-away society. Here are three ways to help dispose of our single-use economy.

(Cover Photo: The Monterey Aquarium in California)

I once saw a television floating in the ocean.

My wife and I were enjoying an evening stroll in the Maltese capital of Valletta when we saw the black box bobbing in the water. While an unusual sight anywhere in the world, it was especially jarring along this historic stretch of Mediterranean coastline.

Upon these rocky shores of Valletta, where 500-year-old fortifications loom over the sea, fishing boats offload their daily catch into the hands of the locals, who then quickly shuttle their prized fish home for dinner.

To see a television full of toxic elements floating in the same water as where the local food comes from was unfathomable.

My thoughts began to wander. I imagined the plastic, lead, barium, and strontium of the TV being nibbled on by fish. Stored in their fat cells, the toxins would ultimately be released into a human digestive track.

I grimaced.

For a few moments, my wife and I just stood there watching it bobbing in waves and banging against the rocky coastline.

A television floating in the ocean.

After the shock wore off, I quickly climbed down a wet, rusty ladder to the rocky shore below, laid flat on the rocks, and lifted the TV out of the water.

Having secured the TV, I stood and wiped the algae and barnacle crumbs off my shirt and shorts. Then, using one hand to hold the TV and one hand to hold the ladder, I climbed back up the seawall.

Reluctantly, without any idea of how e-waste is processed on the island, I threw the TV in the nearest dumpster.

Shawn removing the TV from the ocean.

Climbing a slippery, rusty ladder.

Time For A Change

Seeing a toxic TV floating in the same water as my food was infuriating. How did it get there? Why hadn’t anyone else pulled it from the water?

Unfortunately, toxic garbage in our oceans is a global problem. It needs a global solution.

The challenge however, is that it requires people to change their behavior — a notoriously difficult thing to do. When working against monied interests, it is doubly difficult. Chicago’s recent capitulation to the soda and sugar industries is a case in point.

Changing behavior is usually the responsibility of government. By imposing taxes, creating and enforcing laws, and funding public awareness campaigns, government is a primary force for behavior modification.

In addition to government, companies can also play a role. However, any effort to do so is usually aimed at boosting profits.

Ocean pollution.

We need companies and governments to help change consumer behavior by getting people to recognize the value of our environment. Here are three ways we can do this:

1. Make It Expensive

Plastic bags, cups, utensils, and containers that are designed for a single, brief moment of use before winding up in the trash (and/or the ocean) need a higher price tag.

Companies should separate these items from their primary products and charge for their use. In Europe, plastic bags in supermarkets often go for roughly US$.30 cents a piece.

This encourages people to bring their own bags when shopping, and enables retailers to reduce their overall cost of sales.

Britain is currently considering a “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups of $.34 cents. The measure is designed to modify consumers’ behavior by encouraging them to carry around their own reusable cups.

For a interesting look at the extent of the problem, here’s a great Vox piece:

2. Make It Easy

Recycling opportunities are a fundamental step in changing behavior. Easier recycling options need to be made available by building an infrastructure to support the reuse of materials.

More recycling bins need to be installed, more recycling plants need to be built, and a new “circular” logistics system needs to be developed.

Governments and companies will play a primary role in making recycling easier. Through funding, tax incentives, enforceable laws, and a profit motive, the creation of a smart recycling system will make it easier to change behavior and dispose of the disposable economy.

3. Make It “Heartable”

Emotion sells. If people feel better about themselves and feel good about saving the planet, their behavior will change. We can all start feeling better by insisting on less disposable products by:

  • Just saying “no” to those ubiquitous plastic utensils and napkins in a plastic bag that comes with your takeout food. 
  • Declining to have that handful of disposable ketchup bags with your fries.
  • Being a rebel and bringing your own bags to the grocery store.

The excitement to preserve is contagious. People will probably share the images and stories of their environmental stewardship on social media, prompting more people to follow suit.

With that being said, please feel free to share this story with your network. Together, hopefully we can begin to dispose of the disposable economy.

Contemplating a change.


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