One Student’s Global Movement to Protect Waters from Plastic Waste
By Kathryn Semogas, Change.org Canada
Tyler Doose is an environmental science student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He started “Protect Our Waters: Say No to Plastic Waste – a global movement to bring people who start similar petitions from different countries together. For Earth Day, I spoke with Tyler about why he hopes local voices will tackle the global problem of marine plastics.
What prompted you to start a movement about plastic waste on Change.org?
I grew up in a small town on the shores of Lake Huron, Ontario. Ever since I can remember, the beaches near my family’s house have been littered with plastic garbage—like so many other beaches around the world. People just seem to ignore it, because plastic litter is just a fact of life. What I’ve learned is that this garbage is more than just an eyesore, it’s deadly to marine life and it’s toxic to humans. And it’s only getting worse.
What makes this such an urgent problem?
Oceans around the world have become a dumping ground for every country’s plastic waste. Nearly 250 million tons of plastic waste pollute our oceans, and that number is growing fast. And it’s not just the oceans. Bodies of water everywhere—lakes, rivers, streams—are filling up with plastic particles. Major sources of fresh drinking water, like the Great Lakes in Canada and the United States, are contaminated with plastic particles. Researchers estimate nearly 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes yearly. We know that about 90 percent of seabirds have consumed plastic at some point—so have the majority of saltwater and freshwater fish. If you eat sushi or seafood on a regular basis, then it’s highly likely you’re eating plastic too. And there are many negative health effects associated with consuming plastics, not to mention we all need clean water to survive.
Do you think people know how widespread this issue has become?
We’ve polluted global waterways for decades, but until recently the general public hasn’t paid much attention. I know that many people aren’t aware of it, just from talking to my family and friends. Part of the challenge is that the scientific research isn’t common knowledge, and people don’t realize how much they are exposed to toxins in the water. Environmental scientists have a big role to play in exposing the very real and urgent danger that this presents to marine life and human life. It’s one thing to discuss it amongst ourselves, but we have a responsibility to raise awareness and prompt action. And we have to do that in a way that resonates with people. Petitions are a great way to make the case and coordinate action.
Let’s say we reach a point where it becomes common knowledge, what’s next? What barriers exist?
One of the biggest barriers is convincing the food and beverage industry that consumers don’t want to use so much disposable plastic. Fast food restaurants have helped normalize plastic as a regular part of our lives. It’s hard to avoid using plastic utensils when I’m grabbing a quick bite to eat. And recycling only goes so far.
Plastics are cheap and they’re very convenient and industries seems to value profit over the health of our planet, which is not surprising to anyone. But I know it can be countered with action at the local level.That’s why I really think it’s up to individuals and consumers to demand action.
What makes you believe that online actions can make an impact?
In 2015 I started a petition asking the Canadian government to enforce a ban on plastic micro-beads—the tiny particles in cosmetic products like toothpaste and body wash that end up in our water systems after they go down your bathroom sink. I joined forces with environmental groups, and over 50,000 signatures later, Canada announced a plan to ban micro-beads. It shows what happens when you give people information and the tools to act. That’s real. That’s tens of thousands of people. So many people who left comments after signing that petition said they had no idea that this was a problem. It proved to me that individual action is not only completely viable but extremely powerful as well.
So you decided to take it to the next level.
Absolutely. It’s why I started Protect Our Waters, so people can continue the ripple effect that’s begun. Montreal is banning single-use bags in 2018, and some U.S. states are considering doing the same. I’m encouraging people to start petitions about disposable plastics asking their cities and towns to eliminate them for good. It’s at times like this that citizen pressure can push policy in the right direction.
I hope that this movement can connect people from around the world who are all pressing for change in their own neighborhoods. There’s no single organization, company or country that’s going to solve the problem of plastic pollution on it’s own. It has to be people all over the world standing up and saying ‘We can’t do this to the Earth anymore.’ So far, Protect Our Waters features petitions from India, France, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with hundreds of thousands of supporters.
One of those petitions is a new one you’ve started. What’s it about?
The United Nations recently launched it’s #CleanSeas Campaign, calling on countries to regulate against single-use plastics, and to press industries to find alternatives, with a goal of reducing ocean plastics significantly by the year 2022. Ten countries have signed on, but there are plenty of others that haven’t yet, including Canada. My new petition, which now has 25,000 supporters, asks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to join this crucial effort and I’m going to keep pushing on that.
And what about corporations?
Holding industry to account is also key. Individual consumers have the power to do that, particularly through social media and online platforms like Change.org. Right now, there are two big petitions that are a part of the Protect Our Waters movement targeting Coca Cola and Amazon that I encourage people to sign and share for Earth Day.
What else can people do to help on Earth Day?
For all of this to happen, we need to equip people with information.The goal of Protect Our Waters is to share information about the toxic effects of plastics, but it’s also about highlighting work that’s happening around the world and sharing petition victories because every win counts, whether it’s in a town of 500 people or a city of 8 million.
I like to think that every signature we get is like taking one piece of plastic out of the water, and that our victories will start reversing the damage we’ve already done. Most plastics products are an option, they may be convenient, but they are not necessary.
Kathryn Semogas is part of the North America Campaigns Team at Change.org
Tyler is looking for people around the world who want to join his movement, collaborate and start their own petitions. If you want to get involved, visit his movement page, start your own petition, or get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.