We are increasingly coming to understand just how much damage is being done by plastic pollution to people, animals, oceans and landscapes all over God’s precious earth. Plastic waste is contributing to air pollution, contaminating our food system, getting into waterways and, based on current trends, will outweigh the volume of fish in our oceans by 2050.
Plastic is designed to last. It’s one of the reasons behind its exploding popularity. But it’s these same fantastic forever qualities that have also led us to the plastic pollution crisis we now face.
A big part of the problem is the proliferation of so-called disposable plastics. Things like plastic shopping bags, single-use drink bottles, balloons, straws and takeaway coffee cups. We use them for a few moments, sometimes just seconds, and then throw them away. Around half the plastic waste we produce globally is packaging material that is discarded after just one use.
Australians create more than 75 million cubic metres of plastic waste each year - that’s enough to cover the surface of a football pitch every five minutes. Most of us are shielded from the full extent of the problem thanks to our regular bin collections. But, as has recently come to light, our systems for managing this waste are struggling to keep up. For the billions of people who live in communities around the world with little or no waste management at all, the escalating problem of plastic pollution can have a much more immediate and damaging impact. People in these places have no option but to live among the piles of rubbish, burn it or dump it. The harm this does to their health, homes and livelihoods is heart-breaking.
Between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases related to mismanaged waste - that’s up to one person every 30 seconds.
To solve a big problem, you need to break it down. Except, when it comes to plastic, that’s precisely the problem - it doesn’t break down. Not in the same way as natural materials like plants or food scraps. Not completely. And not without some pretty devastating consequences for the surrounding environment and whoever lives there. New research suggests that between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases related to mismanaged waste - that’s up to one person every 30 seconds.
It may be beyond our individual ability to solve entirely but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to respond in whatever way we can.
Right now, global plastic production is projected to double over the next ten to fifteen years. Better systems to collect, manage and recycle waste are one part of the solution but they won’t go far enough. Our current trajectory will inevitably outpace and overwhelm any waste management systems we put in place. When you add into the equation all the energy and resources that are needed to produce and transport plastics around the world in the first place, keeping on with things the way they are just doesn’t make sense. For the people living in communities like those where Tearfund’s partners work, solving this problem can be literally a matter of life and death.
God calls us to pursue abundant life, not an abundance of things. There are ways we each can play a meaningful part in turning things around. One of the first places to start is by being more mindful of the volume of plastic we consume in our daily lives - eliminating single use plastic where we can.
We also need to go upstream and stop so much plastic – particularly single use plastic – being produced in the first place – and nowhere more so than in the world’s poorest communities who are least resourced to deal with it. This means calling on the companies who are driving the production of single use plastics to take responsibility and play their part in the solution.
Stepping up, speaking out and making changes to the way we live – these are the bold and courageous acts of faith God calls us to. As we live out our faith in this way, we allow Jesus’ commandment to love God and our neighbours to shape even our most mundane, everyday choices. We can also discover – often in surprising ways – a life more deeply connected with God and the people and places around us.