The global scale of plastic pollution can be hard to visualize, but its local impact is instantly recognizable.
Roadside parks filled with litter; ocean waves carrying straws, toys, and bottles onto popular beaches; and landfills towering with plastic waste have become all too familiar.
These scenes are a difficult sight for many people around the world, ruining once-pristine wilderness. On top of the visual blight, plastic pollution causes negative consequences for wildlife that make its presence ever harder to bear.
It kills whales, dolphins, turtles, and hundreds of other animals. It contaminates water and food supplies, and even floats through the air, breathed in by people every day. Plastic pollution leaches toxins into the soil and ocean water, and tiny bits of microplastics get consumed by insects and tiny marine creatures.
Countries around the world have declared this pollution a crisis and are beginning to restrict plastic production. Businesses are also investing in sustainable alternatives and have vowed to invest in better recycling initiatives.
But leading the way are everyday citizens taking action in a range of creative, determined, and practical ways.
Here are seven people around the world who are leading the fight against plastic pollution.
1. Joshua Caraway
Happening now: Meet Joshua from Atlanta (@boppay), he’s going through the Miami Beach crowds picking up trash. @MiamiBeachPD’s @PaulAcostaMBPD met with him to thank him for his efforts 👏🏼👏🏼 pic.twitter.com/3ypXQL7tHT— Joel Franco (@OfficialJoelF) March 23, 2019
Joshua Caraway vacationed in Miami, Florida, earlier this year during his school’s spring break. When he got to Miami Beach, he saw trash everywhere, and asked his friends to help him clean it up. They said no, so Caraway grabbed a pair of gloves and garbage bags and started picking up litter by himself.
A police officer patrolling the area spotted Caraway and took some pictures that went viral, inspiring people around the world.
2. DJ Woodbury
DJ Woodbury was asked by his school to help clean up the Petaluma River in Petaluma, California. When the 12-year-old started picking up trash from the river, he learned that he liked cleaning up the environment.
For the next three months, DJ traveled with his dad to the river every week to pick up trash. They would set out in a boat with garbage picking tools and some garbage bags and eventually collected 2,215 pounds of trash.
DJ got recognized for his dedication and was invited by the city council to speak about his initiative to inspire others.
3. Sarah Ferguson
Growing up in South Africa, Sarah Ferguson developed a passion for swimming at an early age. In recent years, however, her ocean swims have been marred by plastic trash floating in the water.
Ferguson decided to do what she does best to raise awareness of the problem. She staged a 62-mile journey from Mozambique to South Africa as part of a documentary on plastic pollution in the world’s marine environments and her effort spurred plastic clean-up events in the region.
The swimmer had previously partnered with the South African supermarket chain SPAR in its effort to reduce plastic packaging and promote sustainable practices among consumers.
4. Shelby O’Neil
Proud to present this year’s @PaulWalkerFdn Youth Leadership Award & Scholarship recipient to Shelby O’Neil of Jr Ocean Guardians, a non-profit teaching children the effects of plastic pollution. She also created the #NoStrawNovember Movement, changing the way CA uses straws. 🥤 pic.twitter.com/RUgJaK4LoF— Meadow Walker (@MeadowWalker) August 10, 2018
Shelby O’Neil learned that plastic straws had become one of the most common forms of plastic pollution and noticed that many companies were beginning to stop serving plastic straws in response to public pressure.
So the 16-year-old girl scout wrote a letter to Alaska Airlines asking them to replace plastic straws with a more sustainable alternative, and their response shows that everyday people can make enact change if they raise their voice.
In her spare time, O’Neil also cleans up local beaches to make sure the plastic pollution already in the environment is properly disposed of and recycled.
5. James Wakibia
UN Environment (press release) Meet Kenyan environmental campaigner James Wakibia UN Environment (press release) James Wakibia, 35, didn't set out to be an environmental activist. But the pollution in his hometown of Nakuru,… https://t.co/t9fsB90uGe via https://t.co/V94GbS7WBrpic.twitter.com/1Wj8lGMvN4— EarthMatter (@EarthDefendah) May 4, 2018
Plastic waste kept piling up in bodies of water in Nakuru, Kenya, and it seemed to James Wakibia that the government was failing in its duty to manage the country’s waste. So he began to campaign — writing letters, visiting officials — calling on the government to take action.
Six years later, he inspired the entire country of Kenya to ban plastic bags.
6. Afroz Shah
So inspiring: 3 years ago this week, the world's biggest clean-up was started by one man. Turtles started to hatch again on Mumbai's Versova beach for the 1st time in 20 years— Assaad Razzouk (@AssaadRazzouk) April 27, 2019
"I feel I owe it to my planet to give give give and not take take take"
- Afroz Shah#BeTheChangepic.twitter.com/V14rEdt9FA
Afroz Shah, a young lawyer and environmentalist, moved near Versova Beach in Mumbai, India, in 2015 and was shocked by the level of plastic pollution he saw.
It was so bad that people couldn’t even walk along the shore.
Shah took matters into his own hands by organizing a weekly clean-up and educating locals on the harms of plastic pollution and the benefits of recycling. After two years, hundreds of volunteers would join his weekly clean-ups and they eventually cleared away more than 11 million pounds of trash — the largest beach clean-up in history.
The beach became so clean that wildlife, including baby turtles, returned.
7. Priyesh KV
KV Priyesh, a 30-year-old fisherman, living in Kerala's Kozhikode district was increasingly disturbed by the amount of plastic waste that would get trapped in his fishing nets, every time he went out to the sea. #ChangeMakerspic.twitter.com/NRYjdKXluU— The Better India (@thebetterindia) June 25, 2019
While out on his boat in Chombala Harbor in Kerala, India, the fisherman Priyesh KV noticed that his nets would pull in just as much plastic waste as they would fish.
This was not only counterproductive, but it was also deeply disturbing.
“The sea is my home,” the 30-year-old told the Better India. “How would you feel if everyone is trashing your home and there is so much garbage that you can’t breathe? That is perhaps how the creatures in the ocean feel.
“While most people think that the waste can be found largely along the shores, the reality is that one can find it in the deeper parts of the ocean as well,” he said. “It’s not just tourists or passengers cruising on ferries; even fishermen are guilty of throwing plastic bottles that they carry with them to the sea.”
Over time, Priyesh began collecting plastic waste each night and teamed up with a local businessman who owns a plastic shredder.
The duo estimates that they’ve collected 13.5 metric tons of plastic over the years, and their efforts have been recognized by community members.