Author: Jan Dall
Jan Dell, walks on beaches and dreams of the day they will be clean. She is also an independent engineer and the awe-inspiring founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a non-profit organization that collaborates with shareholders and environmental groups on initiatives to reduce plastic pollution. She has a wealth of experience implementing sustainable business and climate resiliency practices in more than 40 countries. In this letter, Jan encourages us to think creatively about the future, with hope for our planet. She considers her role to walk the cat back, as the spies say, to trace the amazing stories and unforeseen events that led to The Last Beach Cleanup. Your job is to read to the key message at the end – trust us, it will be worth it your time.
September 16, 2028
Dear Reader in 2019,
The planned global beach cleanup turned into a celebration of nature today. The people who turned out for the cleanups enjoyed the beauty and health of their beaches with wave jumping and bird watching. Instead of looking down to pick up plastic items, the beach goers could look out and up to enjoy all that our beaches have to offer.
Just a few years ago, it didn’t seem possible that beaches around the world would ever be clean. Everyday seemed to bring a new study or news headline about the vast scale of plastic pollution going into rivers, lakes and oceans resulting in the suffering of sea creatures, birds and animals. The problem was getting worse as more plastic was produced and became waste. The epidemic of plastic pollution going onto land and into waterbodies was growing as plastic material got cheaper, companies pushed their disposable products, people consumed conveniently, and waste systems couldn’t keep up.
The heroes in the transformational change are both surprising and not, because truth is often stranger than fiction. The Bag Monster, a Bigfoot-like creature made of 500 plastic bags, appeared in 2004 to show why plastic shopping bags shouldn’t be given out for free. Bag Monsters multiplied and were sighted around the world as countries chose to stop plastic bag pollution by stopping the free distribution of hundreds of billions of plastic bags.
People who tried to make change often hit roadblocks. What elevated them to hero status was persevering and inspiring others to act. In 2015, Afroz Shah and his 84-year-old neighbor, Harbansh Mathur began, cleaning up their city’s Versova beach in India because they were fed up with the waste that overwhelmed the beach.
Just a few years later in 2017, Shah said “I am sorry, I give up. Tried my best and I failed. Forgive me my ocean and my country” after collected garbage wasn’t picked up. Ultimately, Shah’s cleanup efforts expanded to clean the coastline’s rubbish-choked mangrove forests and to inspire similar groups across India and beyond to launch their own cleanup movements. Most miraculously, in March 2018, 80 Olive Ridley sea turtle hatchlings returned for the first time in twenty years to Versova Beach.
Countless volunteers had been doing litter cleanups around the world at beaches, rivers, and parks for decades. The Ocean Conservancy led the largest effort through the annual International Coastal Cleanup Day. In 2017, more than a half a million people volunteered and removed over 18 million pounds of pollution, most of it plastic, in a single day.
The list of items collected in the beach cleanups became a to-do list to stop plastic pollution at its source, before it reached beaches. Groups like #BreakFreeFromPlastic enlisted volunteers do “brand audits” on the plastic pollution to pressure companies to take responsibility for the plastic packaging of their products, especially in countries without waste management systems.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition launched the Global Fast Food Plastic Survey to track company commitments to stop using the commonly polluted plastic items. The European Union led with a directive to ban many of the most commonly polluted single use plastic items and require producers to take responsibility for their product packaging. Other countries followed, some more quickly than others.
Some people say that 2017 was when real progress over plastic pollution began, although it didn’t seem like it at the time. Actions by individuals and groups began to collide, combine, collaborate, conjoin, collapse, catalyze and ultimately create the transformational change that ended plastic pollution on our beaches.
Researchers published a report on the “Production, Use and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made” that quantified the problems that resulted from massive production of single use plastics. BBC’s Blue Planet 2 documentary inspired people to demand change and lawmakers listened. China’s move to restrict import of waste materials from outside their country had unimaginable consequences that ultimately benefited their country and the world.
Many documentaries showed the harms caused by plastic waste exports which ultimately ended the unethical practice. Since countries could no longer export their plastic waste and citizens protested against new landfills and incinerators, lawmakers finally took action to reduce plastic packaging waste at home through container deposit laws, mandating widespread availability of water refill stations, product bans and extended producer responsibility.
Random efforts intersected by chance and combined to produce the power for a quantum leap of progress to reach meaningful scale. The Last Beach Cleanup wasn’t achieved by a single well-coordinated global environmental campaign or an intergovernmental mandate designed to eradicate plastic pollution, although the addition of plastic waste to the Basel Convention in 2019 certainly helped.
The beaches were clean because a critical mass of individuals acted in their own realm of influence, each with unique drivers and approaches. People acted by signing petitions to businesses (Sierra Club’s letter to Burger King) and though shareholder resolutions (As You Sow’s efforts to require plastic manufacturers report on plastic pellet spills). Some big efforts crashed like waves but influenced others to do more modest things that created an irreversible current of change. It took a symphony of talents.
Transformational change happened when a diversity of people acted, in their own way and for their own reasons.
Regrettably, I couldn’t track the full account of how many and which actions were enough to power the transformational change needed to stop plastic from polluting our landscapes, beaches, and oceans. I only heard about some of the people, groups and their actions. Most local actions that led to the global outcomes will remain a mystery, since so many things happened in so many places.
You’ll know when you get there. If you want it to get better, you have to try.
To learn more about Jan*: The Last Beach Cleanup
*Jan was appointed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as a member of the US Federal Committee that led the 3rd National Climate Assessment from 2010 to 2014, as well as the Vice Chair of the US Federal Advisory Committee on the Sustained National Climate Assessment in 2016-2017. In other words, when it comes to the planet, she is someone worth listening to.