UConn PIRG’s screening of “A Plastic Ocean” Wednesday night showcased the catastrophic impact of plastic waste on the marine environment. The end of the film and the panel discussion that followed emphasized the power of the consumer to bring about much-needed change.
Dozens of students gathered in the Infotech Engineering Building to watch the film. The film was created by the Plastic Oceans Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to dealing with the plastic problem by changing how society views it as disposable.
“A Plastic Ocean” was filled with striking images such as dead seabirds with bloated guts filled with hundreds of pieces of plastic and ocean floors strewn with decades’ worth of plastic debris.
A study published by Science Advances magazine last year showed that the cumulative plastic waste generated and disposed of is predicted to increase five-fold by 2050 from 2010 if it continues at its present rate.
“The problem, in a couple decades, has expanded exponentially,” Panelist Nikki Pirtel, a sixth-semester environmental studies major, said.
The average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic each year according to Ecowatch.com.
Plastic buildup is also a large problem in developing nations. The film showed the area of Manila Bay in the Philippines and areas of Indonesia overcrowded with plastic trash.
“Many developing countries have an overwhelming problem with plastics because they’re rich enough now to afford Coca Cola…in all these plastic bottles. But there’s no infrastructure for recycling, for waste disposal,” J. Evan Ward, panelist and the head of the UConn Marine Sciences Department, said.
Glenn Faber, a second-semester physics major, said the film made him more aware of the scope of the problem.
“I didn’t realize it’s such a global effect,” Faber said. “It’s crazy.”
Ward, who studies bivalves, said he has noticed the plastic detracts from the aesthetic beauty of Connecticut’s waters.
“I’m always disappointed just in seeing that. There really is a lot of plastic,” Ward said. “It doesn’t matter what beach you go to, even some of the islands offshore – there’s plastic. You find plastic.”
The film ended on a much more hopeful note. It showed several innovations such as technology that has been developed to disintegrate plastics down to their harmless components. It also featured Germany’s program that puts the burden of dealing with manufactured plastic onto the consumer.
“We really need to rethink the way manufacturers are using and disposing of the plastic material,” Ward said.
Pirtel said students can begin to take immediate, individual action by making an effort to recycle their plastics and refusing single-use plastic items like plastic shopping bags and water bottles.
“You really need to just absolutely refuse single-use plastic. That is the worst of it,” Ward said.
Ward said manufacturers are aware of the problem and will act responsively if consumers begin to demand change.
“If all the consumers started saying ‘we’re not buying anything with plastics’ – they would change,” Ward said. “But there needs to be a lot of people saying that.”
Anna Baker, a fourth-semester environmental studies major and the UConn PIRG coordinator for the event, said she thinks the panel discussion went very well.
“I thought that Dr. Ward was awesome,” Baker said. “Having all that research…that he brought…to the panel was the perfect touch.”
UConn PIRG Zero Waste Campaign Coordinator Justin Kaiser said the event was educational for those who attended.
“I’m glad we put it on so people could come and learn,” Kaiser said. “I think people learned a lot.”
Pirtel said reducing plastic waste is something that affects the entire global ecosystem.
“We need to do it for animals that live in the ocean, our own well-being,” Pirtel said. “Everything is interconnected. This is just the beginning.”
Pirtel said that meaningful change will take time and continued effort but that it can be achieved.
“Change is really slow, especially with our government, so I think we just need to keep pushing,” Pirtel said. “It’s not going to be an easy process nor is it going to be quick. But if we stick with I think eventually we can reach those kind of changes that we want.”