Should we get rid of plastics? With Diane Beaumenay-Joannet

Diane Beaumenay-Joannet is a project leader on aquatic waste in charge of the “Reset your habits” campaign at Surfrider Foundation Europe, an international NGO that aims to protect the oceans, the coast and its users. As for all our interviews, we first let her watch people’s testimonies and then asked her a few related questions. The video shows a selection of her answers, and you can read her full interview below.


20 Questions About Water: What is your first reaction when you see these testimonies?

Diane Beaumenay-Joannet: It doesn't surprise me. People are starting to realise that we’re using a tremendous amount of plastic, and that we have to stop because there are widely spread images that show plastic pollution and dead animals because of plastic. People are shocked by these images.


20QAW: Can you tell us a bit about the history of plastic?

DBJ: Plastic grew exponentially in the 1970s because it was both flexible and hard, easy to manufacture, inexpensive, and could take every shape imaginable so it was a bit of a magical material. It became popular for all types of use. Today, you can find it everywhere, in all kinds of shape, in everything you consume and items around you: clothes, furniture, food packaging, it really is ubiquitous. We’re seeing an exponential increase in plastic consumption which highlights the tremendous amount of plastic we use every year.


“80% of the waste found at sea comes from the inland”


20QAW: Why is plastic so heavily criticised today?

DBJ: Plastic is highly criticised because it is one of the main polluters. It constitutes 90% of the waste that we find in the ocean. It is criticised because it leads to a sustainable and diffuse pollution. From the moment plastic waste is released into the environment, it remains there for hundreds or even thousands of years. The impact is huge, and we’re only now realising the sheer scope of this pollution. Back when plastic was created, everything was great because it was easy to use, to transport, etc. But today we realise the impact it has, for a very short-term use. In fact, plastic never really disappears, it just gets smaller. It degrades into micro particles that end up in the air, in water, etc. That’s why it is so heavily criticised.


Should we get rid of plastics?


20QAW: Where does plastic pollution come from?

DBJ: 80% of the waste found at sea comes from the inland. It's mainly telluric pollution, meaning all waste that ends up in the environment or open dumpsites is transported by the wind and rainwater into waterways, and eventually into the ocean. Another portion of that pollution is caused by activities directly at sea, meaning fishing, shellfish farming, even people on beaches.

Out of the ten most common types of waste we find, 9 are made of plastic: plastic bags, plastic bottles, food packaging, snacks and drinks packaging, Q-tips… All daily-consumption items.


20QAW: Who is responsible for plastic pollution?

DBJ: We are. 100% of waste is human-made, which makes humans 100% responsible for this pollution. But we’re also the ones who can come up with solutions.


“You can’t expect people to change their consumption habits if you don’t offer the means to do so”


20QAW: Are there geographic disparities?

DBJ: There are indeed. Some studies show that most waste comes from ten rivers. I believe it’s not a good approach to blame the countries that are the biggest polluters, because these rivers often flow through Asia, in states that do not possess any waste-management system. The important question is: who manufactures goods in these countries? And who sells their waste to these very countries? Most European countries sell their plastic waste to Asian countries for it to be processed over there, but in fact, these countries do not have adequate waste-management systems in place. They receive this waste, but they can’t process it. I strongly believe the responsibility is shared. When pollution reaches the ocean, it scatters, sometimes around the globe. Everything moves around in the ocean, and we’re all partly responsible for this pollution.


20QAW: How to prevent plastic from ending up in oceans?

DBJ: We must tackle the problem at its core. Unnecessary plastics, over-packaging and single-use plastics should disappear. We must rethink our plastic production in order to make less using a smarter approach. For instance introducing the notion of eco-design. It means taking a product’s lifecycle into account in its design process: how it will be processed, repaired, reused and truly recycled. The true intent is to prevent landfilling and waste incineration.

Rethinking the entire lifecycle of products also involves rethinking their manufacturing, distribution and consumption by educating consumers about the product’s environmental impact, so they have the tools to understand why they should change their consumption habits, and of course providing potential alternatives. You can’t expect people to change their consumption habits if you don’t offer the means to do so.

It’s essential to facilitate access to alternatives. For instance if you stop producing plastic bottles, you must provide access to quality drinking water for all, everywhere, as well as reusable containers. This means rethinking the product’s entire lifecycle and involving all stakeholders.


Should we get rid of plastics?


20QAW: Who are these stakeholders and what are their roles?

DBJ: As citizens, the first step is to stop consuming plastics, opting for reusable alternatives, buying unpackaged products, bulk products and reusable containers. It takes effort to amend our consumption habits. On a daily basis, this means using a reusable bag rather than a plastic bag, using a flask over a plastic bottle, adopting reusable containers as well, for lunch at work or anything else at home. This also goes for beauty products, using shampoo bars, soap bars. Opting for glass containers, or at least large containers to avoid having a large amount of small packaging. It’s all about consumer choices.

For businesses, it means changing their products, adapting them.

And in terms of policy, it requires implementing new measures to reduce unnecessary plastics, single-use plastics, promote new alternatives, and give access to these solutions.

The ecological transition is only possible if all stakeholders are involved, and we all have a role to play at our level. For that, we really need a strong framework to prompt businesses to make the necessary changes. That’s why politicians have a key role to play at national, European and international levels.


20QAW: What is the role of NGOs like the Surfrider Foundation?

DBJ: Our main role is to raise awareness. We are whistle-blowers. Surfrider was created in 1990 in Biarritz by surfers angered by the pollution at their surf spot. Going into water all year round, they quickly realised the water quality was really poor outside of summer; they were getting sick and seeing waste everywhere. They felt they needed to take action and raise awareness about this invisible pollution. It’s not something you can see unless you live right by the sea, all year long.

So our role first and foremost is to raise awareness about pollution, and provide solutions to consumers as well as businesses with which we’re in constant communication to change manufacturing practices. We also exchange with politicians to change the law and environmental policies to improve ocean protection. We contribute our expertise to national and European institutions to achieve better environmental laws for the ocean.

Furthermore, we also connect various countries together. As we operate in several countries, we are aware of what’s going on around these countries and are able to spread our knowledge and good practices, thus connecting these communities together.


“Our technological and scientific means open the door to a wide range of innovative solutions”


20QAW: Can you imagine a world without plastic?

DBJ: I don’t think a world without plastic altogether is a realistic option; we’re too heavily dependent on this material. But I believe in a world that uses plastics reasonably, reducing the total amount of plastics produced, using plastics over longer, more sustainable lifecycles, and using fully recyclable plastics so that no plastic ends up in the environment, in a landfill or incinerated.

Of course, there are some types of plastics that have become indispensable, for instance in the medical world, but that’s a whole different topic because this waste is processed in a very specific way, and isn’t a strong contributor to plastic pollution.


20QAW: How can we solve a global challenge with national and economic realities?

DBJ: The plastic challenge is a little like global warming. We’re all responsible, and we can all take action, but because of the sheer diversity in terms of cultures and how we deal with this issue, several solutions are possible.

Some countries have imposed a complete ban on plastics and optimised waste collection and processing. I truly believe the priority is to implement the solutions we do have, which requires political will, and the desire among businesses to develop and implement new solutions, but also to spread them by sharing knowledge and good practices, for instance duplicating an Asian initiative in Europe, and vice versa. This sharing of knowledge is absolutely essential in the private sector.

On a global scale, the United Nations Environment Programme is currently assessing the possibility of an international convention about plastic waste, which would be a first. This would contribute to holding all states accountable, and divide responsibilities among each state depending on their ability to implement solutions, prompting them to take action at national level to reduce plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution impacts everyone. It has an effect on the environment, but also on humans. All we need is coordination to prevent any disparity in how we implement potential solutions, with some states achieving a plastic-free society while others receive all plastic waste, like it is pretty much the case today.


20QAW: Are you rather optimistic or pessimistic regarding the way things are going?

DBJ: I am optimistic indeed. I wouldn’t be doing this job if I weren’t! There has been a massive wake-up call. The media’s ability to show invisible pollution, for instance ocean pollution, and scientific progress help us realise the impact this pollution has, and contributes to finding solutions. Our technological and scientific means open the door to a wide range of innovative solutions.

Our role as organisations is to keep putting pressure on politicians and businesses to remind them about the on-going emergency, which everyone is aware of but doesn’t always take into account.


See all videos here