Is Our Growing Plastic Panic a Convenient Distraction From Much Bigger Issues?

Plastic has become one of the biggest environmental issues of the present day - one that has generated more awareness than any other. But is our focus on ditching plastic really the best use of our time?

Autor*in Marisa Pettit, 08.14.19

Translation Marisa Pettit:

Plastic has become one of the biggest environmental issues of the present day – one that has generated more awareness than any other. But is our focus on ditching plastic really the best use of our time?

During the last few years we have lived happily surrounded by plastic. It’s there in practically everything we do each day: the plastic container for our shower gel, the plastic fibres in the clothes we wear, the plastic packaging we buy our lunch in, the plastic casing of the computer we use at work all day, the plastic bottle of water we buy, the plastic devices that our doctor uses, and on and on…

For years we have taken plastic for granted, considered it a mere by-product of society’s development towards a more convenient, consumer-friendly way of life. What mother would want to return to cloth nappies when disposable ones made her daily routine easier? Why carry your own bags to the supermarket when we can get plastic ones right there? And while new plastic products were introduced into our lives, plastic also came to replace products traditionally made of other materials. It was cheap, easy to handle and durable, a perfect product for the consumer industry: it was created, used and then thrown away. And as our consumption increased, so did the plastic we produced each year. Humans have been producing massive amounts of plastic for decades. Today, approximately 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, 50% of which is for single-use purposes.

We were creating waste with every purchase, and while the sight of plastic litter was an eyesore, it is only very recently that people have also begun to see it as something more than just an annoying nuisance – it’s now understood to be a social, environmental and health issue of global proportions. It’s in our cosmetics, it ends up in the waste water each time we washed our clothes. Not only is plastic damaging marine ecosystems, throttling marine life and ending up microplastics in the fish we eat, but it’s even been found in the air we breathe.

Different movements, not only ecological organisations, have been raising awareness about the need to reduce our plastic consumption. And civil society has joined them. With global cleanups, people going “zero waste” and the spread of packaging-free supermarkets being just some of the initiatives that appear daily in the media. And with these movements came the rise of alternatives: from straws made of apple, to plates made of wheat bran. A recent crowdfunding campaign saw fundraisers collect over 640,000 euro to develop a reusable cotton bud.

While these projects show that as consumers we are aware of and want to do our bit in this fight against plastics, to what extent will these projects help us to reduce plastics globally? Take, for example, the issue of plastic bags. What is the point of us as users reducing their consumption when practically everything we buy in the supermarket is wrapped in plastic?

Even if we as consumers do of course have a part to play in society’s unsustainable pattern of plastic consumption (key term here: “throwaway society”) we can only have a real impact on the problem if we place our focus somewhere far more crucial: towards those multinational companies that are producing the world’s plastics. Plastics production is a branch of the gigantic petrochemical industry. Only a few dozen companies manufacture the majority of the products that we use and only a handful of multinationals dominate the market for plastic pellets (plastics in its raw form). And, unsurprisingly, these corporations have a strong lobby that is well organised to ensure that the ever-growing production of plastics isn’t what is seen as the problem.

Corporations are not doing enough to stop the growing crisis

In 2018, Break Free From Plastic led 239 plastic cleanups in 42 countries on 6 continents, collecting over 180,000 pieces of plastic pollution. Adding what they call “brand audits” to the cleanups, they revealed the top polluters worldwide to be: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Perfetti van Melle, Mars Incorporated, and Colgate-Palmolive. Incredibly, the top three companies alone (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé) accounted for a whole 14% of the branded plastic pollution that they found around the globe.

“These brand audits offer undeniable proof of the role that corporations play in perpetuating the global plastic pollution crisis,” says Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator of Break Free From Plastic. “By continuing to churn out problematic and unrecyclable throwaway plastic packaging for their products, these companies are guilty of trashing the planet on a massive scale. It’s time they own up and stop shifting the blame to citizens for their wasteful and polluting products.”

Greenpeace followed up a social media campaign that encouraged people to take a picture of any single-use plastic waste that they spotted lying around, post it on social media and then tag the company that manufactured it with the hashtag #IsThisYours? to let them know that they believe they are the real ones responsible for the huge environmental crisis due to plastic pollution – by promoting and enabling a lifestyle based on disposable consumption, without offering any alternative other than asking consumers to recycle. Many big brands have released statements or plans that address the massive plastic pollution problem that they helped to create. But their plans are nearly always not ambitious enough, with a focus on recycling or increasing the recycled content of their plastic packaging. 

The tip of the climate change iceberg

Logically, as human beings, we prefer to focus on changing things that we believe we can change, and tackling issues where we can see our actions having an immediate impact. Plastic is ideal for that. Unlike climate change, which seems so huge and impossible to do anything about, the plastic problem is much more approachable, real and immediate. It’s something you can get started on right now. And while that might be one main reason why the public is so enthusiastic about anti-plastic campaigns recently, plastic and climate change are more closely connected that they might at first seem.

Almost every single piece of plastic that exists began life as a fossil fuel, with greenhouse gases emitted at every stages of its lifecycle: from extraction and transport of fossil fuels, to manufacture and production, to waste processing and beyond. A 2016 World Economic Forum report predicted that by 2050, 20% of all oil extracted across the world would go towards making plastic. “Ultimately, plastic pollution is the visible and tangible part of human-made global change,” scientists Johanna Kramm and Martin Wagner wrote in a paper published in 2018.

So even while plastic may be just the tip of the climate change iceberg, just one small example of a huge host of different environmental problems that we are facing, maybe that’s also the power of the anti-plastic movement: its ability to have a knock-on effect that reaches beyond “only” reducing plastic pollution. The growing focus on plastic over the past few years – both in civil society and the scientific community – has inspired individuals and companies to reduce their plastic consumption, but also governments to draw up new regulations. In Europe an EU directive has banned the use of one-use plastics starting in 2021, and earlier this year 170 countries pledged to “significantly reduce” the use of plastics by 2030. Regional governments have also brought in bans – from San Pedro La Laguna in Guatemala to Tamil Nadu in India. California just banned plastic straws, while in Kenya, producing, selling – or even just carrying – a plastic bag could see you slapped with a 40,000 dollar fine. Last year, even oil giant BP announced that the plastic bans around the world would dent the demand for oil. By 2040 the industry is set to be producing 2m fewer barrels of oil per day.

While plastic may seem to be a small victory, it also goes to show that small victories can have much larger effects. And in a world facing a whole host of interconnected issues, small constructive changes can have an unexpectedly powerful positive impact.

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