skip to content
My Green Pod Logo

Planet vs Plastics

EARTHDAY.ORG’s Michael Karapetian & Evan Raskin explain why it’s time to clean up the plastics industry – and how you can help
Young volunteer at a beach cleanup in Lagos (2022)

This article first appeared in our Earth Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 22 April 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Main image: Young volunteer at a beach cleanup in Lagos (2022)

Today, there is no escaping plastic pollution.

It can be found in every corner of the world, from the remotest parts of Alaska and the Sahara to the Amazon rainforest and the freezing isolation of Antarctica.

We’ve all heard laments that plastics have been found on the tallest mountains and in the deepest trenches of the oceans – and the sad fact is that it’s true. 

Plastic production

Microplastics, the tiny slivers of plastic that the naked eye cannot see, are even inside our own bodies; they’ve been associated with a whole range of health issues, including hormone disruption, Alzheimer’s, reproductive issues, obesity, cancers, male infertility, strokes and much more.

This environmental and public health crisis is why EARTHDAY.ORG (EDO) chose ‘Planet vs Plastics’ as the theme for Earth Day 2024, and is calling for a 60% reduction in plastic production by 2040.

Considering that half of all the world’s plastic is single use, this is not an overly ambitious goal. It’s what the planet needs.

Polluter accountability

EDO started the Great Global Cleanup (GGC) in a bid to tackle the exploding environmental issue of plastic pollution head on.

Since its inception in 2019, hundreds of thousands of volunteers across 192 countries have removed over 160 million pounds of rubbish, demonstrating just how much can be accomplished when everyday people band together. 

This Earth Day, EDO will again be activating worldwide cleanups – but this time with the intention of not just cleaning up, but also holding the real polluters to account.

We are inviting our amazing cleanup partners and volunteers to consider taking part in Brand Trash Audits; this involves logging the type of plastic rubbish collected, the brand name on every single item and how much of it they are cleaning up. 

In November 2023, the New York Attorney General’s office sued PepsiCo for polluting the Buffalo River; the result of Trash Brand Audits conducted by another NGO served as part of the evidence used against PepsiCo. This is what inspired us to do the same type of audit. 

Information about how to do these Trash Brand Audits, plus the Data Card sheets you will need to do them, will soon be released on our website, allowing any cleanup crew, anywhere in the world, to take part. Everyone is invited.

Activating legislation

The Trash Brand Audits build on a long history of Earth Day activism that has led to institutional change.

The very first Earth Day – led by Denis Hayes, one of the founders of EARTHDAY.ORG – took place back in 1970, and mobilised 20 million Americans to take part in nationwide protests.

Their actions led to some of America’s most important environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency – all three of which form the backbone of US conservation policy to this day.

Over the decades, Earth Day has evolved into the largest secular observance in the world, mobilising over 1 billion people globally every year to engage in meaningful action for our planet.

Spotlight on Armenia

This year we will see a massive cleanup in Malaysia thanks to the participation of 200,000 volunteers in Penang Island, and we’re delighted that 3,000 students in Zimbabwe are planning to clean up and enjoy a music festival in the process.

But the highlight is the very first official Great Global Cleanup in Yerevan; the beautiful capital city of Armenia is older than Rome and has one of the largest growing environmental movements in the Caucasus region.

We are working with our partners at Maqoor and the Armenia Tree Project to engage hundreds of volunteers to pick up litter and take part in a conference at the American University of Armenia.

This conference will highlight the many NGOs working in Armenia to continue to develop this country’s ecological landscape.

It comes on the heels of the government of Armenia committing to doubling the country’s tree coverage by 2050. It has already planted over 8 million trees towards this goal.

The Great Global Cleanup really is a core driver of volunteer action for Earth Day globally and we have no intention of stopping any time soon.

Yet we are longing for the day our volunteers no longer need to pick up the plastic industry’s mess. 

The power to effect change

As well as bagging tonnes of rubbish, cleanups empower individuals to get involved and bring about real change beyond their own front door.

Discussions about climate change and the need to protect the environment can leave us all exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious and confused, but we’ve found that taking part in a cleanup can really help.

Cleanups have the power to engage people from all demographics, across the political divide.

Anyone can look at a beach, river, lake or park that is covered in plastic and decide to take action.

Seeing a carpet of plastic bottles, torn styrofoam and discarded food packaging triggers us all. The GGC shows people they have the power to change this ugly landscape for the better.

Taking part in a cleanup can also strengthen our ‘green muscle memory’ and lead to further action and advocacy. We call it the ‘GGC action switch’ as it seems to inspire a need to stand up for the planet! 

If you’re ready to get involved, our Global Cleanup Map already hosts 5,000 public cleanup events worldwide, meaning finding a cleanup near you is as simple as logging on to EARTHDAY.ORG and looking at our map. If you can’t find a local cleanup, why not host one yourself?

The history of plastic pollution

It would be remiss to denounce plastic pollution without acknowledging how we ended up here.

Back in the 1950s, when plastic first became available, nobody could predict where it would lead – but last year alone, globally we produced 400 million US tons of it.

Less than 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled because the plastic-producing industry has no interest in recycling it; it is cheaper for industry to keep creating new, virgin plastics.

If we continue on the present trajectory, by 2060 the plastic industrial complex will triple production to 1,200 million tons of plastic a year.

They won’t take responsibility for the plastic crisis they are creating until we force them to – which is why taking part in a Brand Trash Audit is so important. 

We have been force-fed plastics and we must break this cycle of addiction – for the good of our own health, if not the planet’s.

Most of us forget that plastic is not inert; it breaks down into micro and nano plastics that we all inhale and ingest every day –  through the water we drink, the synthetic fast-fashion clothes we wear and the plastic-wrapped food we eat. Even the dust in our own homes is contaminated with them.

These tiny fragments of plastic – and plastic chemicals like BPA and phthalates that leach out of them – have been found in the human bloodstream, our urine, the arteries of our heart, our lungs and our brains. They have even been found in the human placenta.

The health consequences of all this involuntary plastic consumption cost the US alone an estimated $250 billion annually as it treats the array of plastic-related health illnesses out there.

Not content with wrecking our health and our environment, plastic is also playing a part in wrecking the climate.

In fact, the production of plastic accounts for 4% of all greenhouse gases – and that’s set to hit 12% by 2060.

The fossil fuel industry is desperate to see plastic production and usage rise because it needs to keep selling oil as we move away from oil to power our cars – perhaps why Exxon is one of the world’s biggest producers of single-use plastic. The fossil fuel and plastic industries are one and the same.

Be the change

Ultimately, we can all play a role in physically cleaning up plastic trash but we can and should also advocate for an end to the production, proliferation and pollution of plastic.

A simple phone call to your MP can make a huge difference, and this type of action has been the driving force for change since the beginning of the environmental movement.

When the first Earth Day occurred in 1970, it inspired millions of people to make a stand. Those people demanded a better future for themselves and their planet, and kickstarted a monumental change that shifted environmental governance for ever.

It created the modern environmental movement as we know it today.

So don’t let their work be in vain and don’t be downhearted. Get involved and take action; join a GGC event, do a Trash Brand Audit and write letters to your elected officials demanding action to curb the plastic industry.

Sign our Global Plastic Treaty, reject buying fast fashion, tell your local supermarkets to curb their obsession with wrapping and packaging our food in plastic, stop using single-use plastic bags, bottles and utensils.

Be conscious of how much plastic you’re using and throwing away every single day, and be the change you want to see.

We can end plastic pollution – but we will only do it together.

Here's more related content

Join The Conversation

Leave a Reply

Here's More Ethical News News & Features

  • All
  • Amazon
  • Fairtrade
  • SDGs
  • Spirits
  • USA
  • activism
  • activists
  • banking
  • banks
  • beach clean
  • beauty
  • biodiversity
  • business
  • circular economy
  • climate action
  • climate change
  • climate emergency
  • climate justice
  • community
  • conflict
  • consumption
  • deforestation
  • diet
  • drinks
  • ecocide
  • economics
  • economy
  • education
  • environment
  • equality
  • ethical business
  • events
  • exhibition
  • farmers
  • farming
  • fires
  • food
  • fossil fuels
  • health
  • helath
  • homes
  • housing
  • human rights
  • indigenous
  • investment
  • investments
  • justice
  • law
  • leadership
  • legal
  • lifestyle
  • mental health
  • money
  • net zero
  • oceans
  • organic
  • packaging
  • peace
  • pension
  • plastic
  • plastic pollution
  • policy
  • politics
  • pollution
  • resources
  • rivers
  • schools
  • scotland
  • skincare
  • society
  • trees
  • war
  • waste
  • water
  • wellbeing
  • women
  • work