Where we go next: the future of the plastic problem

Hi everyone, I’m Gillian Burke and I’m a biologist, filmmaker and presenter of BBC’s Springwatch.

The last few years had seen plastic pollution campaigning come on in leaps and bounds. What started as a small, undetectable pulse of activism a few decades ago, as plastic pollution began washing up on remote beaches in far-flung corners of the globe, grew steadily into a powerful wave of vocal campaigning and rising public awareness.

Gillian Burke

More recently, what was dubbed as The Blue Planet effect rode that wave through our screens and into our homes as Sir David Attenborough landed the message of the shocking consequences of plastic pollution on all life on earth.

COVID-19 however is the curveball that no one saw coming and it has been a complete game-changer in more ways than one. The immediate need to curb transmission rates by stepping up hygiene has seen a sharp rise in the use of single-use plastic from medical masks and protective wear to millions of plastic bottles of sanitiser to disposable wipes.

This has been a necessary response but for the incredible and dedicated collective of scientists, campaigners, activists and volunteers, this year must feel like the plastic pollution clock has been wound back and all that hard work has been undone. But even before the pandemic, it was becoming clear that there was only so much we could do as individuals.

The onus has largely been on us as individuals to reduce our single-use plastic habits by making better choices as consumers. However, what if we had better options in the first place?

One thing that the COVID pandemic is teaching us is that change is not only possible, but change can happen and fast. We have watched as individuals, communities, organisations, industry and whole governments have adopted rapid system changes to respond to the pandemic. So now we know change is possible, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see big companies and even government commit to switching off the single-use plastic tap at source?

Avoiding single-use plastic had entered the mainstream and was becoming the norm. New research has shown that one of the biggest motivators for this switch in habits is simply the knowledge that other people were rejecting single-use too. This ‘crowd swell’ phenomenon is a powerful driver of change and one that engenders a shared sense of responsibility and togetherness.

So as we find our feet in the new normal, now more than ever is the time to stay connected, join forces to form new alliances so that we can amplify the message that a cleaner, greener and fairer post-COVID world is one where everyone is a winner.

For more from Gillian you can follow her on Instagram.

If you’ve been inspired by Gillian to cut back on single-use plastic, why not join the Plastic Challenge?