By: Stiv Wilson, Campaigns Director, The Story of Stuff Project, Executive Producer and Creator, The Story of Plastic
It started on a beach in Oregon, after a surf. Here, you can see no human-made objects on land. But amidst this natural wonderland that is Pacific Northwest beaches, there was something out of place. Something not quite right. I had never really been an environmentalist exactly; I was more geared towards the arts and writing. And that’s why it hit. Plastic: this material so universal we hardly even notice that it surrounds every part of our lives. But here, on a beach against a primaeval wood and boundless ocean, plastic was out of place. It was the aesthetic incongruity to the natural order that hit me– and it was a gut punch. This was the human stain. This was climate change made visible. This was what was wrong with civilization.
As a surfer, I never really got much into surf culture and thus, I found myself getting involved with The Surfrider Foundation because these were not only people who surfed but worked to protect the ocean. The intellectual and responsible surfers. Quickly I became the chair of the Portland, Oregon Surfrider chapter and set out to ban plastic bags in Portland. I had no idea what I was doing. But I had good mentors from Surfrider and eventually we were victorious. That’s the thing, activism is addictive. To exercise one’s own will and inspire the will of others to take a vision of a different world to a metric conservation outcome was an amazing feeling of empowerment. A chance to not feel helpless. A chance to not feel as though the great grindings of the world were totally out of control.
But after we won, the curiosity and will to make change didn’t stop. I was obsessed. I read every scientific paper, I sought the one organization at the time dedicated to understanding plastic– Algalita Research and Education whose founder, Charlie Moore, discovered The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I wanted to go there. I wanted to see it for myself. That desire had me quit a job at a media company I had started, even though I had no way to pay for my life. It didn’t matter, I figured out how to piece rent and food together and I ended up helping to start another organization, The 5 Gyres Institute with a couple who wanted to got to all the gyres. Sail around the world and gain a perspective that very few people have? Oh, and produce a scientific paper that estimated the total load of plastic in the ocean? Sign me up. I ended up sailing 35,000 nautical miles and screaming out my being about plastic pollution which is now considered a global crisis. But what was painful is that through press and speaking gigs came from my exploits, no one really seemed to have a personal connection with the middle of the ocean. The gyre is far away from the day to day toast, coffee, and get the kids to school. It was sad, but not an existential threat to their lives.
I grew up in Minnesota. The Great Lakes are culturally ingrained in midwesterners as they serve as the backdrop of summer vacations and fourth of July barbecues. I wondered if plastic was there and given the emotional connection and the whole ‘we protect what we love’ idea, my gut told me that folks around these lakes would react personally. We hitched a ride on a replica of a war of 1812 brig and sampled all five. What we found was startling– microbeads from personal care products were all over the place, and in huge concentrations. Already, I knew that real solutions could only be found upstream from the ocean by preventing plastic from leaking into the environment in the first place. Trying to clean up plastic once it’s in the environment is like trying to pick up spilt flour grain by grain after you rip the bag open in front of an industrial strength fan. Cordially, I’d call this inefficient, realistically I’d call that strategy stupid. We have to stop it from going in in the first place. As such, that lead me to start a campaign with a few colleagues to ban the microbead. Midwesterners were freaked out by the notion of their precious lakes filled with tiny plastic and we gained traction fast with the companies making microbead products. But too often as is this case, companies don’t really change unless they’re forced to.
The microbeads campaign took off; over hundred NGOs got involved, and after a three-year battle we passed federal legislation that stopped one product from polluting. But at the moment victory, one also sees how much bigger the problem is. What I recognized is that going product by product: microbeads, straws, bags, etc. wasn’t going to get us significantly ahead. We have to go bigger.
See, what people often forget about the plastics industry is that their job is to make plastic and make more of it because that’s what creates capital for their shareholders. The industry doesn’t care if plastic is in a straw or a bag or a microbead, they just care that plastic is going into products somehow. By the time we ban one product, a hundred other ones have entered the market. So it was time to tell a different story.
The Story of Plastic
At Story of Stuff Project, we’re dedicated to converting the converted. What we strive for is to get concerned citizens to look at issues from a systemic vantage, and to act with the intention of transforming that system. But few actually understand the whole system and so we set out to tell a big picture story, all around the world about plastic and the environments and people it affects. At every stage of plastic, it pollutes. From fracking, to refining, to transport, to consumption, to export, disposal, and leakage. That’s our story– the people affected and the heroes fighting back, the heroes of Break Free From Plastic. Break Free From Plastic is a global movement of 1400 groups and counting working in solidarity all along the plastic pollution lifecycle — from extraction to disposal with an emphasis on working together at the peer to peer level.
One of the biggest mistakes that plastic oriented stories make is that they pick up the story at the point where it’s already too late fix it– when the straw is in the turtle’s nose. What we found filming all over the world is that in the countries where plastic pollution hurts people the most, you also have the most sophisticated activists fighting back against a broken system. Our film will amplify those voices because that’s where the solutions lie. The Story of Plastic will debut in 2019 as a feature-length documentary that will change the narrative of how we view the problem and solutions to it. This story is one I’ve wanted to tell for many years after several investigations to ‘Away’. For years I’ve worked to ask questions I can’t handle the answers to and along the way I’ve gained the trust of advocates across the world to help tell their stories. We’ll take you into places you can’t imagine, and we’ll bring you out of them with marching orders on how to fix the broken system. Turning in the widening gyres, the center cannot hold. We’re working to solve it.
WATCH a mini-doc from the Story of Plastic below, featuring #breakfreefromplastic changemaker Tiza Mafira of Diet Kantong Plastik.
It's not that plastic waste in our world is mismanaged; it's that there is so much plastic being produced that it's unmanageable.Solutions start with reduction and prevention because by the time plastic enters the environment, it's already too late.
Posted by The Story of Stuff Project on Wednesday, November 28, 2018
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