By Justin Capone

In recent years, there has been heightened concern surrounding the increase in contaminants that pollute our planet and natural ecosystems.

Extensive research adds to our understanding of the serious implications of the amount of plastic in the oceans. Unfortunately, much of the damage is caused by a lack of human desire to make a significant change in their practices.

Much of this is driven by the social apathy that seems to have taken ahold of those in power.

One certainly doesn’t have to look far to see the environmental effects of plastic. Upon arriving to college at UC Santa Barbara, located right along the coastal cliffs of California, I walked along the beach with my roommate. We came across a decomposing bird on the shoreline, its body filled with bits of plastic. It felt like an image pulled directly from environmentalist propaganda, placed right before our eyes.

Speaking as a contributor to such environmental mass-article sharing, it gave tangibility to the ideas my classes provide to me. It is even estimated that 90% of all seabirds have eaten some form of plastic, with 60% of them having plastic in their guts now.

As an environmental studies and political science double major, I regularly receive the background information necessary to practice sustainability. However, this also entails the unfortunate reality that the average person does not possess a clear understanding to do the same. A UCSB study led by ecologist Roland Geyer found that by 2015, humans had generated roughly 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste, with only 9% recycled. It’s clear that the combined issue of growing populations and waste generation is outpacing sustainable policy.

One of the most infuriating parts about this is the fact that many feasible solutions exist. Professors and scientists regularly research and develop practices and plans surrounding waste removal and reduction itself, though most of it remains solely theory.

That shouldn’t suggest discouragement, though. At times, I find myself overcome with the sense of responsibility I feel I have towards living a sustainable life, amplified by the reality that much of what I do won’t make a significant difference. Despite this, one of the most important ideas of environmentalism is the significant impacts a single individual can make on the greater good. Environmentalism is, in fact, completely dependent on individuals working for collective action. After all, how can we rely on one person to solve climate change? All of us contribute in some form so we all should play our part in minimizing our footprints.

Much of what can be done on the individual level also makes a bigger difference than some may believe. I’m a vegetarian, and despite all the flack I get from my carnivorous friends, I am able to save hundreds of gallons of water per year, not contributing to the unsustainable practices of wide-scale agriculture. Think about it this way: if everyone who eats meat regularly decided to limit their consumption to once a week, the difference it would make would be undeniably impactful. Again, it comes back to every person’s willingness to play their own humble part.

In Isla Vista, the small neighborhood bordering UCSB, there is an effort to ban plastic straws and replace them with metal reusable ones throughout restaurants. DaniRose Hill, an environmental studies major and Surfrider Foundation intern, is spearheading this project. Plastic straws are not biodegradable or recyclable, and it is estimated that Americans dispose of about 500 million straws every day. “Straws are a clear example of something that is present but not at all necessary,” Hill said. “It’s a good reminder to question why you use the things that you use, especially when many of them are so toxic to the environment.”

Her project coincides with many other students’ efforts to contribute in their own ways. I myself am in the process of banning the sale of plastic water bottles on campus, a project I successfully implemented at Albany High School in 2015. One of the biggest ways to achieve success is through proper framing of issues that force the greater population to think critically, to examine their own actions. Environmental change is not, and should not, be limited to environmental majors. We make up just a fraction of the world’s population, and collaboration will require everyone to do their parts.

This leaves us with one question: How can we make a significant difference in helping the environment?

The answer lies in examining the very foundation on which we live our lives. Plastics and fossil fuels gave rise to the industrial powers of humanity today. That shouldn’t suggest that change is impossible; in fact it means that the same ingenuity can be applied to implementing new solutions. If there is anything that is most important, it’s to go out and educate oneself on the issues. Think critically, question your preconceived ideas, and most importantly, remember the difference an individual can make.