For the past four years, Alan Cookson has devoted his spare time to cleaning local beaches. Cookson has led countless groups of volunteers on litter-pick-up trips, but the dedicated volunteer is calling it quits.

When Cookson started ridding Britain’s coastline of plastic in 2014, there was an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. In 2019, that number has grown to an estimated 51 trillion pieces, reports UN News.

On his final clean up trip, he tells a group of college students, an age group he’s dubbed ‘Generation Plastic,’ that the problem has become too big to battle with a few garbage cans.

“Cleaning up beaches is a worthy job, but it’s not the solution,” he says as he explains the gravity of plastic pollution.

“Picking up plastic off the beach is like trying to mop up a flood with the tap still running,” he told The Guardian. “We need to put the mop away and find a way to turn the tap off.”

Plastic-free initiatives and recycling aren’t working either

The beaches near Cookson’s home are designated “plastic free communities,” but he estimates about 1% of the population actually takes that seriously. During Cookson’s last cleanup effort there were countless beachgoers with plastic bottles in hand, eating ice cream with plastic spoons, or pulling lunches from plastic bags.

Cookson says “plastic free communities” are nothing more than labels, with no education or enforcement behind them.

Even recycling programs aren’t enough. While recycling can give plastics a new life, a whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled, says National Geographic.

As Cookson leads the kids along the beach with garbage bags in hand, he doesn’t tell them to recycle more. Instead, the Wales resident tells the students to plant a tree. “That’s the best thing you can do for the environment right now,” he said.

A new plastic-free solution

Cookson plans to take a step back to examine his next steps. “I’m not going to let this problem go, but I need to find real environmental actions that actually make an impact,” he said.

While he explores his options, others are investigating alternatives that could drastically eliminate plastic production.

Technology exists that would allow consumers to refill bottles of household goods. Let’s say a shopper goes to the local market to buy laundry detergent, hand soap, and window cleaner. All three of these products come in single-use plastic containers. Rather than buying these products over and over again, which inevitably adds to plastic pollution, consumers can use one bottle for each product and refill it at a vending-machine-like kiosk.

Refill technology has the ability to “slow the tap” of plastic pollution, but consumers have to convince retailers to put the refillable kiosks in their store. Shop owners don’t think consumers are willing to refill bottles, but as Cookson points out, it’s time to explore different ways to curb plastic pollution.

To take action, sign this petition to show retailers that you want refill technology.