Plastic - Bad Guy or Scapegoat?
It's very easy to paint plastic as the villain of the piece but the same logic would blame the planes that flew into the twin towers. Or a kitchen knife used in a crime of passion. Like many environmental issues, scratch beneath the surface and you will uncover a more uncomfortable interpretation.
With the World Economic Forum predicting plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050, no-one could deny its devastating environmental impact. But is plastic really the bad guy or are we simply deflecting the blame?
Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet?
The sale of plastic products and services, like any other business, is motivated by one entrenched belief system. Infinite economic growth, doggedly measured four times annually using Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Originally, this correlated with an improved standard of living but we have reached a tipping point on our finite planet and GDP is rapidly becoming an indicator of ecological collapse, climate breakdown and pollution.
Of course, for infinite growth to function and the plastic crisis to happen, there needs to be a system of constant consumerism, which in turn relies on a throw-away mentality. A content one-stop-shopper is infinite growth’s worst nightmare.
Flash marketing is therefore designed to gnaw away at our emotional inadequacies creating a dissatisfied society looking to buy extravagant, pointless and ever-changing fashion to make us feel better. Prince EA reveals that to do this, “corporations keep us unaware and disconnected” while the planet plays the price.
Trading with global markets has certainly disconnected us from the consequences of our relentless consumerism and allowed plastic to find its way into the oceans. An academic paper in the Environmental Science and Technology journal by Schmidt et al. reveals that 10 rivers ‘transport 88-95% of the global load into the sea.’ Eight of these rivers are based in Asia.
Before you rush to point your finger at Asia’s poorly managed landfill sites it’s important to know the whys and the wherefores. Developed countries, driven once more by a need for economic efficiency, ship their recycling to developing countries where environmental regulations are more relaxed, more readily open to corruption and cheaper.
According to The Guardian, Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysian Environment Minister, is angry at what amounts to environmental bullying. She appreciates that “what the citizens of the UK believe they sent for recycling is actually dumped in our country” and they have had enough.
Ironically, plastic began life as an environmental guardian. In 1869, a major billiards company called Phelan and Collender offered a $10,000 reward for an ivory substitute. John Wesley Hyatt consequently invented the first commercial synthetic polymer, removing the need for expensive and hard to source ivory.
A charitable take would classify this as early conservation in action. However, with the reward worth $189,000 in today’s money, it is once again the anticipation of significant savings for their business’s bottom-line that was the true motivator.
To ignore the role that population plays in any environmental issue would be irresponsible. In 1850, shortly before Hyatt developed the first commercial plastic, the world population was 1.2 billion. As of 2020, it is 7.8 billion.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this population explosion would need more resources and create more waste. Plastic was no different. According to National Geographic, world production increased from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons in 2015.
This population crisis has been compounded by our inability to talk about it. At the RSA President’s lecture, Sir David Attenborough despairs at this “absurd taboo on discussing it.” Reading reports on food availability, nature and demographic change, he notes they all fail to mention the growing population as a rising pressure. He states that “it’s not our only or our main environmental problem, but it’s absurd to deny that as a multiplier of all the others.”
Wildlife Under Attack
Moving forward 150 years from plastic’s creation, UNESCO reveals that a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are succumbing to our plastic debris. As the statistics rack up, the enormity of the plastic crisis shifts from an animal welfare to a conservation issue.
Childhood trips to the seaside are now mired by this changing landscape. More and more Grey Seals at Donna Nook Nature Reserve in Lincolnshire are sporting deep scars from encounters with ghost fishing gear and land debris.
Nicky Yeadon, Director of the nearby Skegness Natureland Seal Sanctuary, believes “most definitely this is a growing problem.” They used to rescue the odd seal pup but “for the last 5 years, there has been at least one pup a year with something wrapped around their neck.”
Unfortunately, youngsters are at greater risk. Their playful natures and inexperience put them in harm’s way and once entangled, their plastic shackles become more constricting and ultimately life-threatening as they grow. A Global Review of Marine Turtle Entanglement by Duncan et al confirms there is definitely a “higher rate of entanglement in juveniles” but swallowing plastic represents an even greater threat.
One Grey Seal nicknamed the Hulk was one of the lucky few. Entangled with what appears to be a kite string, the photos reveal his life-threatening injuries. A call from the public to Skegness Natureland Seal Sanctuary led to a seal hunt over several miles and resulted in months of rehabilitation by a dedicated team. Unfortunately, such charities are few and far between and cannot solve this plastic crisis.
For those of you who wish to side-line this as a wildlife issue, think again. An article by Efferth and Paul in the Lancet states this ‘latent threat to marine life has become an acute threat to human health.’ Over time and relentless weathering in the ocean, larger litter is broken down into micro-plastics that inevitably get swallowed by fish, squid and oysters that we in turn eat.
Efferth and Paul note that ‘compounds used for plastic production are already ubiquitous in human blood and cells.’ Although research into human health hazards caused by plastic is notoriously neglected, they feel “clinical manifestations are only a matter of time.”
The threats are multiple. From endocrine disrupters that affect reproduction to biomagnification where toxin concentrations increase further up the food chain and ‘the first step of tumour development.’
If that wasn’t enough, it is impossible to escape the carbon footprint of plastic. An assessment by the Center for International Environmental Law has calculated the cradle to grave production process of global plastic production and it is not great.
At present, it represents 189 coal-fired power stations but by 2050, this is predicted to leap to 615 plants. This could threaten our ability ‘to keep global temperature rise below 1.5C’ and put us at greater risk of runaway climate change.
So what is the solution? Obviously taking personal responsibility and cutting one-use plastic out of your life but also aspire to the one-stop shopper lifestyle. Less consumerism means less waste filling landfill sites or blowing into the ocean.
The plastic crisis, like many other environmental problems, boils down to willful ignorance of the masses. That's when you know something is wrong but you smother your moral voice under a pile of excuses. I'm too busy, it's only one plastic bottle, no-one else is doing the right thing.
This prevents free-thinking and positive action. Stand up and be counted in whatever way you feel comfortable. I recently heard of one woman who unwrapped all her food at the supermarket till and left the plastic behind. You may not be popular but those who lead the way often aren’t!