Plastic Pollution and Climate Change are not the same thing

by - May 14, 2019

Seems like an obvious statement: plastic pollution (PP) is not the same as climate change (CC); climate change is not the same as plastic pollution. Yes it seems obvious that plastic polluting our oceans or littering our streets has little/no bearing on rising atmospheric temperatures or arctic sea ice melt. 
However, I think there is a common misconception that they are the same thing; or more specifically that by presenting a solution to one, we can solve both. 

These two phenomena tend to be lumped together as 'environmental issues'; and as 'environmental issues' they can be allegedly be tackled in the exact same way and be treated as one thing: the same thing. This is just wrong. 

I see this misconception all the time on social media & on TV & in real life: 

'I don't use straws anymore because I'm worried about climate change'
'I'm reducing my carbon footprint by using a re-usable water bottle and coffee cup'

and it's a bit of a concern. These people aren't stupid, and they're not entirely wrong either. But the lumping together of plastic pollution and climate change as one thing concerns me because they are not the same thing. I worry it gives people an opportunity to ignore climate change... 

As we all know, plastic pollution has become a worldwide issue, and people from all over the world are taking great steps to deal with it. Fantastic. Cannot fault this. 
We are seeing people protesting climate change, calling for green energy, reducing their meat consumption or cutting it our their diet all together. The UK has become the first country to call a climate emergency. Great. All steps in the right direction. 

Climate change is a far more pressing issue than plastic pollution. THIS DOES NOT MEAN PLASTIC POLLUTION IS NOT PRESSING. It just means that climate change is worse. It sucks; I'm sorry. The worst part is, the plastic pollution problem is much easier to fix. Big steps are being taken (eg national bans on single use plastic) and individuals are also taking great steps (eg reusable coffee cups + water bottles, shampoo bars, taking tupperwares to shops, etc etc). This is all great. 

My concern with the lumping of plastic pollution with climate change is:
It gives government's and large corporations an excuse to do nothing about climate change. 

If they champion plastic pollution as their 'environment issue of choice' then they can tick their green box and market themselves as doing something good for the environment. They can deceive people into thinking that they are doing lots, whilst continuing to do nothing about climate change. 

This is the crux of my issue with the term 'environmental issues'. Plastic pollution is an environment issue. By reducing your plastic pollution, you can say you are helping the environment. However the climate and the environment are NOT the same thing. This can easily confuse people into thinking you're doing something about climate change, because we always hear climate change referred to as an environmental issue. 

In essence: a massive company with a huge carbon footprint can stop using as much plastic -> go crazy on promoting this -> and tell us all they're being environmentally friendly. Meanwhile, they're carbon footprint remains the same. 

Obviously, I am not criticising companies for reducing their plastic consumption. But what I am criticising is that this makes them 'environmentally friendly' or 'sustainable' if they are doing NOTHING about climate change. 

Having said all of that, CC & PP are not mutually exclusive either... 
'I'm reducing my carbon footprint by using a re-usable water bottle'
^ this person, is actually entirely correct. 
Water comes from a tap. Buying it in a plastic bottle is literally pouring money down the drain. But more than that, it's adding to your carbon footprint. Plastic bottles you buy in a shop or vending machine would have come from somewhere. They would have been created in a factory, then either transported by road in a car or flown in a plane, or both; to then be purchased by you. If you have a bottle yourself, and turn on your tap, that water has not been flown or driven. Therefore, having & using a reusable water bottle does reduce your carbon footprint (yay finally some good news). 

Secondly, just because they're not the same thing, does not mean they both don't need to be dealt with. They are both serious environmental issues, that both need attention. It is no longer acceptable to not pay attention to the environment: from governments, from corporations, from people. But this attention needs to be spread across multiple issues, and not just one. 

If you're doing nothing about climate change, you have to change. We simply cannot ignore it. We all need to be better at holding those doing nothing (or causing the problem) accountable. And we mustn't be tricked into thinking people are doing more than they are. 
When you hear the terms 'environmentally friendly' or 'sustainable', work out the exact context in which they are being used. Plastic pollution can no longer be a scapegoat for climate change. 

Photo by me from the Cape Town #ClimateStrike in March.

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