A drop in a plastic ocean: how one person can make a difference. | Emily De Sousa | TEDxKanata


Translator: Larisa Esteche
Reviewer: Elena Montrasio “You’re not a drop in the ocean. You’re the entire ocean, in a drop.” This is one of my absolute
favorite quotes. Ever since I can remember,
I’ve adored the sea. And this fascination
is rather unexplainable. My parents never actually learned
how to swim themselves, and having married so young,
we didn’t really have the opportunity to travel very much
while I was growing up. I didn’t actually set foot
in the ocean until my early teenage years, and I didn’t learn how to scuba dive
until I was 19 years old. But nonetheless, I was obsessed with the ocean
and everything that it had to offer. Growing up, I immersed myself
in books and documentaries, wanting to understand everything
there was to know about the water. I felt such a magnetizing
pull towards them, that it was as if the oceans had a secret that they so desperately
needed to tell only me. And on this first scuba dive off the Southern coast
of the island of Oahu, Hawaii, the ocean finally had the opportunity
to tell me that secret. Now, I had been anticipating
this moment my entire life. This was my first scuba dive. I dreamed of seeing bright coral
that stretched on for miles, while a diversity of marine life
danced around them. Instead, this is what the ocean showed me. It looked like the life
had been sucked out of the corals on the ocean floor. And there was no diversity of marine life. There was hardly any marine life at all. I swear that while I was
under on the ocean that day, I heard it whisper, “Help me.” And that’s why I’m here today. Because despite their force, vast depths and the appearance
to stretch on forever, our oceans are in trouble. And one of their greatest threats – well, actually, many of you probably
have it in your pocket right now: plastic. The proliferation of plastic products
in the last 70 years has been extraordinary. We now produce over 300 million tons
of plastic annually, and turn it into all kinds of products; everything from food packaging
to automotive parts, from toothbrushes to fake Christmas trees. Plastic is all around us. It’s become such an essential component
of our material existence that it’s hard to imagine life without it. But is it really that hard? I mean, to imagine a world
without plastics? After all, the modern plastic products
that we know and love today didn’t really exist until about the 1940s. And the interesting part
is that life before them didn’t really look all that different. Before we had plastic,
milk was sold in glass jars. They were refilled when you went
to the grocery store, washed up when they were empty,
and taken back the next week. People brought whatever bags
they had with them at home to the store when they went shopping, and there was no need
for produce packaging because fruits and vegetables
were sold locally, and in season. But as society has shifted
to resemble our modern way of living, centered around a non-stop workday, filled by fast food and single-used items, meant to be thrown away
after only minutes, the idea of plastics
became more appealing. Plastics actually gave some people
this almost utopian vision of this future that contained
abundant material wealth, thanks to a cheap,
safe and sanitary substance that could be molded
by humans to our every whim. And our appetite for this cheap,
durable substance is such that we have produced
9.1 billion tons of plastic to date. 9.1 billion tons! That’s absurd. How can we even begin to try to understand
how much plastic that is? So, I’m going to try to put
that number into context for us. We’ve produced enough plastic
today, by weight, to equal 25,000 Empire State buildings, 80 million blue whales, or a billion elephants. Now, I’m sure that many of you
are anticipating this discussion to paint plastics
as the villain of this story. And while that has some truth,
it’s not the entire story. I truly believe that plastics
really only become the villain in the way that we as humans use,
or rather abuse them. Because of the 300 million tons
of plastic that we produce annually, only 25% of it is properly recycled. And here’s where the rest goes. Every single year, 8 million tons
of plastic enters our oceans, 50% of which is single-use plastic serving its purpose for only a few minutes
before being carelessly discarded. The plastic bags that we get
at the grocery store, they’ve been responsible for millions
of casualties among sea turtles all over the globe, and have an average
working life of only 15 minutes. Think about that. Something that you use
for only 15 minutes of your day has a lifelong lethal impact. This photo of a seabird
recently went viral, and really brought the plastic pollution
discussion into light. It’s estimated today that 99% of seabirds
have ingested plastic in their lifetime. Straws. These guys seem harmless, right? How much damage can one
tiny straw really do? Most of us don’t even bat an eye when our drink at the restaurant
comes with a straw in it. In fact, the David Suzuki Foundation
estimates that straws are so overlooked that in Canada alone we use
57 million straws every single day. And to this sea turtle,
that straw wasn’t so harmless. This is another video
that recently went viral, and I won’t show it here today
because it’s quite difficult to watch, but it essentially shows a boat crew
trying to remove a straw from the nostril of this sea turtle. Coral reefs are also affected
by plastic pollution in the oceans. Many people forget
that reefs are living creatures, and they’re incredibly sensitive
to changes in the oceans’ environment. Plastic has played a key role
in several reefs die-offs in well-known areas, including the Great Barrier Reef. Larger animals, such as whales,
sharks and dolphins are also at risk due to plastic pollution. As these larger animals
consume smaller fish species that have already ingested plastic, the toxins from plastic
begin to bioaccumulate. This can lead to liver failure
and other toxicology related problems among animals at the top
of the food chain. Speaking of the top of the food chain, you and I are also directly at risk
due to plastic pollution in the oceans. Because when plastic enters our oceans,
it never actually degrades, or goes away. Instead, it’s broken down
into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics. As you can imagine, these microscopic pieces of plastic
are easily confused for food and end up being consumed
by small fish species and even plankton, until ultimately, they make their way
back up the food chain. And humans are eating
the very plastic that we threw away. It’s estimated today that 67% of the seafood
that humans consume contains plastic. If you’re a regular seafood eater, that could mean that you’re eating
up to 11,000 pieces of plastic every single year. We’ve taken from the ocean
all that we want and fed it back all that we don’t. And now, it’s literally feeding it
right back to us. I’ve been actively doing
ocean conservation work for about three years now. My main objective in my work
is digital storytelling. I aim to translate environmental issues into media projects that are consumed
by the average person; things like photographs, YouTube videos,
and short blog posts. In my years in academia, I recognized
that a twenty-page peer-reviewed journal isn’t the best way to reach the masses
about an environmental issue. And in my years in environmental activism, I’ve realized that we need
to be reaching the masses. So, recognizing this disconnect,
I set out to bridge the knowledge gap. And I wanted to do so in a way that not only raised awareness
and educated people about the problem, but inspired them to take action. When I started doing this,
I thought that I was a genius. I thought I had created my dream job. I imagined traveling all over the world,
swimming with wild dolphins, and, maybe running into
a plastic water bottle here and there. I truly didn’t understand
the scope of this problem, until I was dead in the center of it. Today, I regularly find myself in the water
with the ocean’s apex predators, which is both the most humbling
and heartbreaking experience of my life. Because every time I get
into the water with these sharks, I witness firsthand how
plastic pollution and human impact is threatening the very
survival of their species. I recently had the opportunity
to travel to the Maldives, somewhere I’d never dreamed
of being able to visit. I had always perceived these islands
as the ultimate honeymoon destination. And when I arrived, I was hit
with this heartbreaking reality, that every single beach was littered
with plastic bottles. Even my hometown of Toronto
is not immune from plastic pollution. This is truly a global issue. And the careless decision to irresponsibly
dispose of a plastic product is made in an instant, but it has consequences
that last a lifetime. One of the greatest advantages of plastics
is that they’re made to last, for a very long time. And in fact, almost every plastic product ever created
still exists on Earth today. Whether it was recycled
into a different plastic product or lies discarded
at the bottom of the ocean floor, it’s still here, and it’s not going away. This is humanity’s mark
on the fossil record. This is actually a photo of what
a fossilized plastic product looks like. Scientists refer to these
as techno fossils, and thousands of years from now, this is how people will know
that we were here, by our remanence of plastic trash
discarded around the globe. The UN is actually calling
plastic pollution in the oceans a planetary crisis. And rightfully so. Our oceans are far too critical
to be treated as a plastic dump. I want everybody to do a little
exercise with me. Take a deep breath in. And exhale. That felt good for me too,
I’m a little nervous. (Laughter) You were able to take that breath
because of the oceans. I’m sure that many of you
were taught, growing up, that trees produce the oxygen
that we need to breathe. We were all taught from a very young age
that we need to protect the trees because they provide the oxygen
that we need to breathe, and they sustain life on this planet. Don’t get me wrong, the trees are very important
and we do need to protect them. But, as I’ve gotten deeper
into my environmental studies and conservation work, I learned that trees
are actually responsible for 28% of the oxygen that we breathe, and that 70% of it comes from the oceans. The oceans are the lungs of this planet. Earth is a blue planet. I’m sure that many of you have seen
that photograph from space, where if you look down on Earth,
we look like a giant blue marble, because our surface is covered
not mostly by land, but by water. And not only do the oceans produce
most of the oxygen we need to breathe, but they act as our largest carbon sink and are home to the most
biodiversity this planet has. And it’s time that we start recognizing
the importance of maintaining healthy seas because our oceans are big,
but they’re not too big to fail. And if they die, so will we. It’s currently estimated
that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic
in the ocean than fish. Should this happen, our entire world
is going to look very different. Seafood will become a scarce luxury, available only to the richest
percentage of the population. And the coastal communities
who rely on fishing for income will be displaced and forced to move
elsewhere in search of new work, which will cause a huge
environmental refugee problem for other countries all around the globe. Your life is going to look different, too. Your vacation memories will change. Instead of snapping photos of your family standing in front of a beautiful,
crystal clear blue ocean, they’ll be standing
in front of a plastic dump. And you probably
won’t expose your children to the toxins living in a plastic sea, so they’ll never know the joy
of swimming in the ocean, not to mention experiencing
the bright coral and diverse marine life that lives beneath the surface. But it doesn’t have to be this way. And every single person here
in this room today already has what it takes
to start making a difference. The simple fact is that
we can’t turn back the clock and revert to a world without plastics. History and science have proven to us that plastics are not the perfect product
that we once believe them to be, but they’re a necessary
and important part of our future. So, if we can’t live without them, we’re going to need to learn
how to live with them in a responsible and sustainable way, that maximizes recycling
and minimizes production. There’s already enough plastic
on this planet. We don’t need to create any more of it. All that we need to do is be smart
about reusing what’s already here. That means stopping the single-use cycle. The only way that a sustainable future
can include plastic products is if we eliminate single use plastics, and instead, turn towards
a circular economy, in which old products become new products. We did this before,
and we can do it again. When I first got up here,
I gave you guys some examples of what life looked like before plastics, and it wasn’t all that crazy. We were incredibly resourceful, and we reused and repurposed
whatever we could. I like to think that humanity
has come a little ways since the 1940s, and there’s no reason why today we can’t find new ways
to use old products. Plastic was introduced to us through
small changes in our everyday lives, and its impacts can be reduced
in the exact same way. All that it takes is small changes
every single day, on an individual scale. Because your actions today
have a huge impact on tomorrow. So, ditch the plastic water bottles,
and instead, invest in a reusable one. And while you’re at it,
get one for your coffee cup too. Always remember to bring
your reusable bags when you go grocery shopping, and don’t buy produce
that is wrapped in plastic. And when you go to a restaurant or bar,
ask for your drink without a straw. People often think that environmental issues can only
be solved with massive policy changes, historic international agreements, or groundbreaking innovation, and that their actions as one person
on this planet don’t matter. But that couldn’t be further
from the truth. Think about it. If every single one of us here today, when we go out downtown
to a restaurant or bar, and you ask for your drink
without a straw, that’s 400 straws
saved from entering our oceans. This is how change starts. It starts with one person. It starts with one straw. And it starts with one drop. And you, and this everyday changes
that you’re making in your own life, are that one drop. Not just a single drop in the ocean,
but the entire ocean in a drop. Thank you. (Applause)

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