The War on Plastic – hey, what’s the problem?
Plastic, a journey across the seven seas…
So… what’s the problem with plastic? Why has our wonder material been making so many waves at the moment. And is it really that bad? Aren’t alternatives just as bad if not worse (this I hear a lot…).
Here goes… According to the BBC documentary “War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita”, a lorry-full of plastic ends up in the ocean every minute of every day. It pollutes not only because of its toxicity and direct effects, but also because it attracts deadly bacteria that then kill ocean life including coral reefs. It is so pervasive that even the air we breathe contains microplastics.
Our plastic pollution of the ocean and beaches isn’t that new: as a family we started cutting down and set one of our monthly challenges based solely on cutting out pointless plastic about 5-6 years ago when my Transition Town group put on a film called Trashed, where images of plastic covered beaches and tortured wildlife already started to haunt us.
Captain Moore coined the phrase “plastic soup” in 1997 when he navigated through the North Pacific Gyre and sailing crews have been returning to collect samples for research ever since. The body of evidence that our love of plastics is doing untold damage is now overwhelming. Ellen MacArthur set up the Ellen MacArthur foundation – dedicated to shifting from our ultimately limited linear economy to one that is re-generative by nature – after she broke records sailing around the world trying to live on limited resources. But it took a documentary by our UK treasure David Attenborough, with “Blue Planet II”, and Liz Bonnin’s “Drowning in Plastic” to wake up the nation to the nightmare we’d sleep-walked into.
There are other forces at work of course. It’s not just our addiction: why is plastic so ubiquitous. Having heard about INEOS plans for a doubling of plastic production in the next few years, proudly using a “virtual pipeline” – tanker after tanker – of cheap fracked gas from the US, it does seem that ambitions run high in the plastics industry and who are we to quell chief Brexiter, aggressive tax evader and richest person in the UK’s appetite for profits. Bear in mind the vested interests that run through large corporations and lobbies.
So, tote bags use cotton, that use more water and energy in their production, but are re-usable over and over and will eventually biodegrade (and frankly if it ends up in the food chain, so what?). Similarly with paper, which is perhaps more expensive to make but becomes mush and composts easily. As someone who has studied sustainability for 15 years, there is a Red Line when it comes to plastic that doesn’t necessarily exist with other materials: as a synthetic product, we need to find safe ways of disposing of them. We have solutions to other problems such as energy (clean and renewable) and water (conserve and re-use) – we don’t yet have scale-able solutions to toxic, and non-degradable materials like plastics. If bioplastics cause havoc at the recycling plant (a whole topic in itself), let’s solve that one separately, by education and better guidance on packaging.
It is not therefore just a case of recycling our way through, or even replacing our plastics with alternative products. A whole systems approach is required: turn off the tap as a starting point, before the problem gets so enormous we can’t go back, by refusing to use plastic where plastic simply isn’t necessary. Rewind our habits and expectations: I mean, really, does my jam jar lid that’s been steam vacuum sealed really need that little bit of extra clear plastic over the top to prevent tampering?? Think local food produce and make organic mainstream not the other way around, so that the cucumber doesn’t need plastic wrap to conserve it for days on end in transit or storage. Let’s keep plastics for those that actually need it, whether it’s hospital applications or our most vulnerable.
And not least because of climate change and resource scarcity and independence, we absolutely have to reduce our dependence on plastics and oil based products. Embodied carbon is important, and will be more so as we reduce operational carbon (in-use energy consumption). But end of life and beyond is equally important: a material that does not degrade and when discarded pollutes at end of life is simply not acceptable.
What’s amazing about the plastics campaign – and I am proud to be part of my local drive to eliminate single use plastic – is how it has engaged a section of society that appeared to know or care nothing for environmental issues in what is now squarely a universal call to action. And small independent refill style shops and cooperatives are about so much more than saving on plastic: suddenly a lost connection to local community is restored because of physically entering your local shop, offering employment opportunities in settings that are about more than profit, and having a conversation as you go about choosing your products, measuring and weighing them.
Spearheaded by a determined young Swedish girl and my absolute hero, Greta Thunberg, young people are now demanding change, and fast. And so, in this perfect storm of awareness and outrage, parents and grandparents have no choice but to look them in the eye and say: yes, I will do something about this, both at home AND in their work.
Materials in buildings will also become more and more important as their whole life impacts become more significant. Embodied energy and carbon will take into account materials and their full life cycle – and if plastics and other oil based materials are not reusable, not recyclable (or in fact recycled), and certainly not biodegradable, where does that leave us?
In the meantime, as someone who likes to walk the talk, how would you go about reducing plastic in your life? Start with the basics: a keep cup, a re-usable water bottle, refuse plastic bags and straws, bring your own lunches in re-usable boxes and cutlery. Reduce your overall consumption of new products, find new life in old ones and upcycle. Find a Youtube video or local Repair Café to extend the life of your stuff. Swap instead of buying. Campaign against unnecessary plastic packaging at supermarkets (unwrap and leave at the checkout if you want to make a statement).
Volunteer for a local litter pick every so often. Teach children to pick up litter, even if it’s other people’s. Follow a plastic free Facebook page or Twitter account for more tips as you navigate your way through the plastic fog ahead and find alternatives as you run down your old plastic-intensive products. Just like energy, yes we need some plastic, for essential items, but there’s a hierarchy: only once we’ve reduced our demand by refusing, reducing, re-using, repairing and recycling can we say yes to plastic.
And remember what we really need is System Change – so while we go about changing things as consumers and conscientious citizens – make sure you take time to sign those petitions, write to your MP (however little you think they’re listening), write to retailers, and join that protest march. No one ever changed anything by doing nothing.