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To make beach cleanups effective we need to chase the brands that are polluting in the first place.
While plastic pollution has won the public’s interest as one of the major threats we are facing, the responsibility of big companies that are addicted to single-use plastic has been kept largely as a side note. We cannot hope for an effective solution to this problem if corporate practices remain unchecked and plastic pollution continues to be approached mostly as an issue of bad consumers’ choices and weak waste management practices.
Last September, as part of the Break Free From Plastic global brand audit — conducted in 42 countries on six continents — Greenpeace Greece cleaned up the beach of Charakas, on the eastern coast of the country. One hundred volunteers collected three truckloads of plastic, and where possible they identified which brands had produced the single-use plastic items polluting the beach. During this “brand audit,” the volunteers collected data for 3000 pieces of plastic and exposed the companies whose plastic products had ended up where they shouldn’t be.
In April this year, we revisited the beach to record its condition, eight months after our effort to return it to its unspoiled condition. Even from far away it was evident that plastic has already returned in large quantities. What we saw was even more disheartening when we got closer. Hard and heavy plastic was scattered along the edge of the water, and immeasurable quantities of lighter weight plastics like plastic cups, bottles, and takeaway food containers were stuck between the plants forming the backdrop of the beach.
The ocean is sending us a clear message: our plastic addiction is transforming Earth into a plastic planet, and cleanups will only have a long-standing impact when we drastically reduce single-use plastics at their source. It is also important to stress that, in an age when the oceans are mostly used as the cheapest option to hide the true costs of our materialistic culture, any effort to protect them and highlight their beauty and value should be praised a thousand times.
Hundreds of thousands of people and organizations around the globe are putting on their gloves and cleaning the plastic mess that is choking the planet, and they should continue to do so. Yet, while cleanups are making our world better in the short term, what we really need is a bigger, systemic change. We need companies to change the way the deliver their products to us; we need to move away from the throwaway culture and embrace systems of refill and reuse. And to make this broader change happen, we need something more than cleanups; we need to make visible that plastic pollution has an obvious source: the companies that continue to release this tsunami of plastic in the market.
Without holding these companies accountable for the plastic pollution they have created, the plastic pollution crisis cannot be effectively addressed. So, next time you organize a clean up, consider adding a brand audit. You can find everything you need in the toolkit prepared by Break Free From Plastic, the global movement for a future free of plastic pollution.
Alkis Kafetzis is an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Greece.