Millions of tons of plastic bottles are wasted every year. Photo Credit: Wikipeida

How to talk to your friends about plastic

Next Generation Science Standards: 

  • HS-LS2-7. Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity

Plastic Plant Lab

Staging an Intervention for Plastic Addiction 

These days, plastic pollution is everywhere, from our coasts to the deep ocean to even in our own bodies. Scientists estimate that eight million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year, which adds to the already 150 million metric tons that are already there. Nearly half of plastic out there is considered “single-use”, so it’s only used once and then thrown away. The average plastic bag, for example, has an average life-span of 12 minutes before it’s thrown away, and only 1% of plastic bags are even recyclable.  Seabirds, sea turtles seals, and other marine mammals can ingest or get entangled in plastic, and it even ends up in some of the food we eat

Microplastics have become a big problem for ocean wildlife. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m trying to do my part and consume less single-use plastic these days. I now use bamboo utensils, buy bulk at the grocery store with cloth bags, bring my coffee mug and water bottle everywhere, and sip iced beverages with a metal straw. However, despite all my efforts, I’m by no means perfect, and close friends to science teachers seem to be using these harmful items every single day I’m constantly shocked at the amount of single-use plastic all around me. Last month at an environmental-themed workshop, there was a cooler full of plastic water bottles, plastic forks and spoons, and take-out lunches in styrofoam containers. Earlier in the summer, at a beach trip out-of-state, I bought one bottle of sunscreen at a drugstore and initially told the cashier that I would not need a plastic bag. So instead, she crumpled the bag up and threw it in the trash. I was so dumbfounded, I just left speechless. 

My silence has done nothing to address the plastic pollution problem. No matter how good I am at remembering my coffee mug, it feels pretty useless when no one around you is doing the same. Of course, it’s ideal to change policy, but we have to start by talking to people in our day-to-day lives. As an introvert, I’ve struggled with speaking up, so these recent events have encouraged me to look for ways to talk to others about our plastic addiction, from our friends to our family to complete strangers. What’s the best way to stage that intervention? 

Practice, don’t preach

One piece of advice is to not preach. Listing depressing statistics on plastic in the ocean or yelling at someone for their consumption is a surefire way to get them to tune out to every word you say. Instead of arguing with your uncle on the harms of plastic grocery bags, start a discussion with open-ended questions and tell him how easier it is to carry groceries in your reusable bag. Maybe even buy him a cool looking tote bag for his birthday. Show, don’t tell and live by example. Some truly may not know where to start. 

But bridge-building doesn’t always apply, like with a cashier you don’t know who you probably will never see again. In some cases, maybe best to just to pick your battles. Start focusing on local businesses in your own community. Talk to employees or advocate for a plastic-bag ban where you live. For environmentally aware friends or co-workers who perhaps just forgot their stainless steel water bottle, start a conversation about plastic use without attacking them for their personal choices. These discussions may help them remember their reusable items more often or to look for alternatives.

Words Matter

Plastic has been found in the bodies of animals worldwide. This albatross found on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean died with a stomach full of plastics. (Photo Credit: Flickr)

California Academy of Sciences also recommends choosing your words carefully. For example, call it plastic “pollution” over “debris”; people think of “litter” (dirty, harmful) when they hear pollution, but debris just doesn’t have the same effect. People can also have a stronger, more emotional reaction if you emphasize plastic’s impacts on wildlife than highlighting, for instance, “Earth’s beauty at stake and the potential for government savings.” 

Yet overall, the benefits of using alternatives need to be feasible and possible. People should be able to visualize their impact, believe it will actually make a difference, and witness other people doing it too. July’s Plastic Eco-Challenge was a good, competitive example at peers pressuring each other to reduce their plastic use and report out on it in teams. The same tactics apply when talking about any other environmental behavior, whether it’s trying to convince your friends to eat less meat or more sustainable seafood, or ride your bike to work or school. Silence won’t change anyone’s minds. 

It’s important not to sweat the small stuff or to blame an individual for just doing their job. We do truly need structural, policy changes to fully address our planet’s plastic pollution. Of course, we should still try to minimize our own impact and to help others do the same, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Try to live simply, vote with the environment in mind (or if you can’t vote, help others get to the polls), speak up at town hall meetings, and advocate for policies that truly change the system that is making it so easy and cheap to just continue using disposable items. Without that, these interventions will not fully cure our plastic addiction. 

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