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Why are we so Bad at taking Care of the Oceans?

Economy Team - 22nd December 2017

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David wants us to throw less plastic into the sea. We say we want to be more ethical consumers. So why are we still using so much plastic?!?!

This Sunday, just like last Sunday, and for the next six Sundays after that, we’re all going to cosy up in front of our TVs and watch Blue Planet 2.

We’ll ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ about how incredible the ocean is, what an awesome job those videographers have, how old David Attenborough is now, and that we never knew fish could actually change their gender. (Literally, if you haven’t watched it, watch it now. It’s mental.)

But something doesn’t quite add up. Because no matter how much we say we love the ocean (and David Attenborough), we’re still throwing 8 million tons of plastic into it every year.

It’s next to impossible to really make sense of what that number means, but it’s a lot of plastic - and scientists don’t actually know what’s happening to it. Which means what’s probably happening is fish are gobbling it up, which isn’t very good for them, or the ocean we claim to love so much.

So what’s our problem? Humans can be pretty good at coming up to solutions to stuff when we want to be. And millennials in particular are supposed to be the ‘sustainability generation’ , willing to pay more for goods that are ethically produced. But taking significant action to reverse the damage we’re doing to the environment and making sure not to do any more seems to be something we’re particularly bad at.

There are two main things to think about here, which in ‘economics speak’ you might call the ‘micro’ What's this? you-icon-01 and ‘macro’ What's this? you-icon-01 considerations. On the micro level, the question is why we make decisions that go against what we say we care about. On the macro level, the question is why it feels so easy to make unethical decisions, and seemingly so much more inconvenient to make a more ethical one.

Let’s start with the macro (cuz it feels less personal). Part of the issue is that the stuff we use every day - from smartphones, to lightbulbs, to clothes - is literally designed to break, so that we go out and buy another one. It’s not about companies making profits: the more stuff we’re selling, you could argue, the more people have jobs (to sell it).

When it becomes so normal to constantly buy new stuff (most of which is wrapped in plastic) and throw old stuff away, it feels very difficult to live an alternative lifestyle without giving yourself a) a huge hassle and b) a huge bill.

But is it possible? Our editor Ellie decided to bite the bullet and give it a go: one week, no plastic. Once she started looking for it, she realised how hard this was going to be. “In the days leading up to the start of my ‘experiment’ I bought a plastic lip-balm, with protective plastic wrapped around it,” she says. “I bought an orange, and it had plastic around it.”

If the ‘macro’ problem with waste is that so much of what we’re sold is disposable, surely the answer is to just buy reusable stuff. But Beth Terry, who runs a blog called ‘My Plastic Free Life’, doesn’t think so. “Purchasing brand new plastic-free containers and bottles can be expensive,” she says. “But being an ethical consumer is about more than just buying ‘green’ products. A more ethical choice is reducing what we buy in the first place and choosing secondhand items when possible.”

Which makes sense, but isn’t always as easy as it sounds. “Being waste-free is kind of like having a restrictive diet,” Ellie says. “It’s all fine if you’re prepared, but if you get caught out you’re in trouble. In fact, the majority of the time the only reason not buying plastic stuff was more expensive was because there’s so much less choice, and brands that do use non-plastic packaging tend to be premium.”

Ellie’s waste-free week taught us that protesting our economy’s obsession with plastic by just refusing to buy any is pretty hard, and also, if we’re honest, probably not that effective. A recent study compared the environmental footprint of millennials who said they made ‘eco-friendly’ choices to those who didn’t, and found that on the whole, their impact on the environment was pretty much the same.

It might be, then, that saving the oceans is going to require a bit more of a systemic change. A group of economists called ehavioral economists 

have come up with some theories that could help nudge us towards behavior changes which would actually change things on a larger scale (Richard Thaler, who founded 'nudge theory', just won one of them Nobel Prizes).

Their ideas have already spared the ocean of millions of plastic bags. You know the whole ‘5p per bag’ thing they put into place in the UK last year? Yeah, that was behavioral economics. The people behind the policy were debating whether to charge people 5p for a bag, or give you 5p off if you didn’t use one. Behavioral economics proved that the first idea was better, because people hate feeling like they’re losing money more than they like feeling like they’ve got something for free - so they’re more likely to bring a tote to avoid handing over the 5p than to get the discount.

The lesson behavioral economics teaches us is that our economies could be a lot better at wasting less, if we just made policies that did better at understanding human nature. And it genuinely works: we’ve used about 80% less plastic bags than we would have since the charge in the UK… all because we’re just too cheap to hand over 5p.

So what else can we learn to become more true to our ocean-loving, Blue Planet-obsessing exteriors? One idea, called the ‘circular economy’, is being taken on by a ton of young entrepreneurs around the world thinking about how we can move from a ‘make, use, dispose’ approach to more of a ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’ kind of vibe.

We spoke to a few of them - from a Czech company called Miwa tackling food waste and packaging all at once, to a pair of siblings from New York turning plastic bottles in swimming shorts - about the challenges of setting up a business that runs on a different principle to most of their competitors.

“There should be talks on a governmental level,” says Petr, co-founder of Miwa. “And education about the whole problem of plastics pollution needs to be more widespread.” “There needs to major improvement in our recycling processes,” said Jake, who co-founded bottle-to-swimwear business Fair Harbor. “We need to stop thinking of waste as waste,” added Ilana and Michael, who co-founded Snact, a business for snacks with compostable packaging. “Once people start thinking of it as a resource, they’ll start valuing it more.”

 


This post first appeared on the Economy.

Image Credit: Hydro Flask via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)