If you still don’t believe in the power of Internet-based activism, the incredible explosion of interest in hemp plastic — literally generated by a single meme — will convince you otherwise.
“Oil based plastics are destroying the environment,” the meme — originally posted to Facebook — states, asking, “Why not hemp plastics? They are both biodegradable and non-toxic.” Pictured at the top are marine animals tangled in plastic waste, while the bottom image shows a time-lapsed progression of a hemp plastic bottle in states of decay — complete in just 80 days.
Apparently, the meme’s message so impacted social media, well over 350,000 people shared it from its original place on End the Drug War — more than twice the total followers on that page. Other large Facebook pages also shared the meme, sometimes in an abbreviated format — and each of those pages garnered similar interest, resulting in thousands more shares.
But the true magic of spreading awareness — the foundation of all activism — could be seen on Google trends with a sudden astronomical spike in searches for “hemp plastic” beginning on the date the meme hit social media. In just one dynamic image, a seed of awareness about a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastics found roots in the minds of hundreds of thousands — and with those roots, vast potential for change.
And that awareness couldn’t come too soon.
Plastic refuse so chokes the world’s oceans, a recent report predicts more of it will occupy space in the sea than fish, by as early as 2050. Every year, at least 8 million tons of discarded plastic winds up in the ocean. A full garbage truck’s worth of plastic is jettisoned into the ocean every minute. However, according to the report,
“If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050 […]
“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).”
At present, plastics account for around 6 percent of global oil consumption — the same rate as oil consumed by the entire planet’s aviation industry. However, by 2050, “If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the plastics sector will account for 20% of total oil consumption.”
Plastic waste in the oceans tragically ensnares or is consumed by wildlife in telling quantities. A September 2015 report by Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in conjunction with Imperial College London found nearly 60 percent of all seabird species “have plastic in their gut” — but by 2050, that number could jump to 99 percent. Indeed,
“The scientists estimate that 90 percent of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind.”
While plastic doesn’t biodegrade, exposure to sunlight causes it to break down into smaller pieces easily ingested by marine and aquatic animals. Further disintegration of larger fragments results in smaller particles known as micro-plastic, which can be ingested by a greater range of species, including those lower on the food chain. Any toxins absorbed by the micro-plastic thus make their way back up the food chain to be consumed by larger animals and humans.
Considering Americans throw out 2.5 million plastic bottles every, single hour, while recycling only 13 percent of plastic waste, it’s no wonder marine and other wildlife bear the brunt of our convenience. But simply increasing the rate at which we recycle plastic amounts to little more than a superficial fix — and the recycling industry has taken a serious hit with consistently dropping oil prices.
Though recycling might be somewhat romanticized as an altruistic venture by people who feel relegating plastic waste to a separate bin means acting responsibly, the fact remains, recycling is a business like any other. In order to function, revenue must cover costs — and right now, low oil prices have forced many to shutter operations.
Fortunately, exactly as the viral meme suggests, an alternative to petroleum-based plastic already exists in the dynamically versatile hemp plant.
“Industrial hemp is grown in abundance in many parts of the world and produces the strongest natural fiber known to man. Hemp as a raw material is one of the most useful plants on our planet with thousands of applications including a viable plastic material,” one of many sources touting the benefits of hemp plastic explains.
“Hemp plastic is a bioplastic made using industrial hemp. There are many different types of hemp plastic; from standard plastics reinforced with hemp fibers, to a 100% hemp plastic made entirely from the hemp plant. Hemp plastic is recyclable and can be manufactured to be 100% biodegradable.”
Plastic manufactured with hemp could drastically curtail the destruction of our oceans and the impact wrought by the manufacture and careless disposal of petroleum-based plastics over prior decades.
Hemp plastic could replace its toxic predecessor in every application imaginable — from phone chargers, lamps, and electrical sockets, to industrial construction components, railways, and toys. In 2014, LEGO executives even announced a plan to abandon toxic petroleum plastics in favor of an as-yet undetermined sustainable resin by 2030 — which sparked conjecture hemp plastic LEGO bricks could be on the horizon.
But before a major push for such sweeping changes to an ubiquitous industry, people must be made aware of the extent of the problem — and that the solution isn’t merely wishful thinking.
And sometimes, the path to implementing meaningful change begins with something as humble as a meme.