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2018: A Year of Fighting Plastic Waste

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Large recycled plastic fish sculpture in Helsingor situated infront of the Kronborg Castle in Helsingor in Denmark in July 28th 2017. James D. Morgan / Getty Images

The plastic pollution crisis has been building for some time now, to the point where around eight million tons of plastic enter the world's oceans each year.

In response, a movement to cut down on plastic waste has also been gaining momentum, but 2018 was the year it really picked up speed, with everyone from ordinary tourists to major companies to the Queen of England lending their hands to push it along.


Part of the movement's success in 2018 was because of something that happened at the end of last year. Famed British naturalist David Attenborough aired his new BBC series Blue Planet II, which featured a heartbreaking image of an albatross feeding a plastic toothpick to its young.

Albatrosses are ingesting plastic - Blue Planet II: Episode 7 Preview - BBC One www.youtube.com

"Never before have we been so aware of what we are doing to our planet—and never before have we had such power to do something about it," he wrote at the close of 2017. "Surely we have a responsibility to care for the planet on which we live?"

Here is a brief timeline of how we answered his question in 2018.

January: The year began auspiciously when, early in January, a ban on microbeads entered into force in the UK. Microbeads were common in personal care products, but they washed down drains into every body of water in the world, where marine life ate them by mistake, moving them up the ocean food web to larger marine mammals and, eventually, to us. In the U.S., former President Barack Obama had already signed legislation phasing out the manufacturing of products containing microbeads by July 2017 and the sale of these products by July 2018.

February: The fight against plastic gained a very distinguished ally early in the year when Queen Elizabeth II banned plastic straws and bottles on all royal properties, including visitor cafes. The Queen was reportedly inspired by working with Attenborough on Blue Planet II.

March: You don't need to be a world-famous naturalist to raise awareness about plastic pollution. British diver Rich Horner raised a lot when a video he had posted on Facebook went viral. The video showed Horner swimming in plastic-filled water off of Bali's Manta Point. Horner used the opportunity to encourage people to cut down on single use plastics and to correctly recycle the plastic they do use.

The ocean currents brought us in a lovely gift today... www.youtube.com

April: On Sunday, April 22, the world celebrated Earth Day. This year's focus? Ending plastic pollution by 2020. "An aroused public can overcome a powerful economic interest, but only when the issue is felt intensely. Until ending 'one-way' plastics becomes a political priority around the world, [their manufacture] will continue unabated. Meanwhile, we nevertheless each should 'be the change we want to see,'" Earth Day founder Denis Hayes said in an interview.

May: Chile's congress unanimously approved a nation-wide ban on plastic bags at the end of the month, making Chile the first country in the Americas to do so. The law gave major retailers one year and smaller businesses two years to phase out the bags. Around 95 percent of Chileans supported their government's decision.

#ChaoBolsasPlásticas www.youtube.com

June: June was a big month for corporate action on single-use plastics as companies like SeaWorld parks, American Express, cruise company Royal Caribbean, IKEA, A&W Canada and Burger King UK all pledged to phase out items like straws, stirrers, lids and bags. World governments also joined in when Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the EU endorsed the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter. The charter set goals for reducing unnecessary plastics and encouraging recycling, but the U.S. and Japan refused to sign.

July: In July, bans on plastic straws specifically took off. A city-wide ban on plastic straws and utensils in Seattle went into effect July 1, About a week later, one of Seattle's most famous companies followed suit when Starbucks became the largest food and beverage retailer to ban plastic straws, promising to remove them from all locations by 2020. However, the disability community raised important concerns about the straw bans. They pointed out that many people with disabilities rely on plastic straws' mix of strength and flexibility to dine out independently and asked that the bans be flexible as well. "We don't have to choose between making the world more sustainable or making it more accessible," disability advocate Karin Hitselberger wrote.

August: France worked to up its commitment to fighting plastic pollution by announcing a series of policy changes this August. Next year, items without recyclable packaging could cost as much as 10 percent more, while items with recyclable packaging could cost 10 percent less. The measures also included upping taxes for landfills, reducing taxes for recycling and implementing a refund for turning in plastic bottles. All of this is to further the country's goal of recycling 100 percent of plastic by 2025.

September: The Ocean Cleanup launched this month from San Francisco in an attempt to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of ocean trash twice the size of Texas. The plastic-removing method, developed by Boyan Slat of the Netherlands when he was still a teenager, hasn't worked effectively yet, but Slat is not ready to give up and continues to troubleshoot.

Boyan Slat explains the challenges ahead for System 001 www.youtube.com

October: This month some of the biggest plastic polluting companies in the world, such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever and H&M, joined forces with more than 250 governments, businesses and organizations to sign the "New Plastics Economy Global Commitment" to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

November: In a testament to how successful the movement against plastic pollution was in 2018, Collins Dictionary named "single-use" their word of the year. The dictionary said use of the word had jumped four fold since 2013. "Single-use refers to products—often plastic—that are 'made to be used once only' before disposal. Images of plastic adrift in the most distant oceans, such as straws, bottles, and bags have led to a global campaign to reduce their use," Collins wrote of its decision.

December: 2018 ended on a positive note for the fight against plastic waste when the EU got one step closer to an agreement to reduce or ban several single-use plastic items. The plan was first introduced by the European Commission in May and targets items like cigarette butts, straws, bottles, cutlery and cotton buds. EU's parliament and council have reached a provisional agreement to move the plan forward.

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"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."

The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.

The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.

The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.

"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."

Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.

"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."

Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.

"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."

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