The annual Lewes raft race is on July 1st — Ouseday as it’s now called — and the organisers have come up with a new slogan: ‘Think Before You Throw’. Last year eggs, fireworks and even a frozen chicken were among the objects hurled at the raftsmen, but the message refers to plastic pollution as well as dangerous missiles. It’s a message that could be applied globally: ‘Think Before You Throw Away’. As the ecological campaigner Julia Butterfly Hill has famously said, ‘There is no “away”.‘ Whether we put plastic in the bin or in the recycling or whether we don’t, it’s still going to be somewhere. It doesn’t biodegrade (unless it’s not actually plastic) and it doesn’t evaporate. Obviously we need to consume less of it but what to do about the billions of tonnes that are already out there?
Plastic has always been at best a convenient necessity; at worst, an environmental hazard and a symptom of aesthetic deterioration. If you’re old enough to remember the 60s (whether or not you were there), you’ll recall the phrase ‘plastic people’ used as a generic insult. The royal family were laughed at for putting plastic flowers on dining tables. Dislike of plastic goes back a long way. Yet we used it, and today continue increasingly to use it, not because we particularly want to but because it’s inescapable. Most of what we buy is either made of it or packed in it. We couldn’t go back to a world of glass, tin and brown paper packages tied up with string. There are just too many people and the impact on the global economy, not to mention the ecological impact on the planet, would be terminal.
By contrast with other processes, plastic manufacturing is ecologically inoffensive. Plastics are made from oil, oil comes out of the ground fairly easily, it can be turned into an enormous number of different chemicals and materials with comparatively little energy or environmental knock-on except for people who live downwind of the factory. But whereas steel oxidises and paper biodegrades, plastic is forever (though I don’t see the plastics industry using that as a slogan any time soon). Even so-called biodegradable plastics don’t really biodegrade, they just break down into smaller and smaller bits of plastic. Every single polymer molecule that has ever been produced is still in existence — apart from the small fraction that has been incinerated (Ecowatch). That’s over eight billion metric tons in total, enough to cover Argentina, half of which has been produced in the last 13 years (Geyer, UCSB). Nearly all plastics can theoretically be recycled (BPF), but for most of it the process is too expensive. In reality only a third is worth recycling and in practice less than 10% does actually get recycled. Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use (Geyer). Eventually all plastics become waste unless you incinerate them.
So here’s the picture. Plastic production is increasing exponentially, we are not going to stop using it because it’s just too cheap and convenient, if we did stop using it there would not be enough alternative material on the planet to replace it, and it’s filling up our oceans and landfill because we don’t or can’t recycle it. Incineration is starting to look pretty attractive.
We opposed the Newhaven Incinerator from the outset. We presented East Sussex County Council with comprehensive and detailed reasons why it was a bad thing. Clouds of toxic gas would waft over Denton and up the Ouse Valley, generally blight our lives and cause property prices to plummet. Or so we thought. And really, incineration is not a good solution. It produces lots of CO2 (probably about the same amount in a year as Lewes does on bonfire night), toxic gases and residues and increases heavy vehicle traffic — surely a better recycling policy would obviate the need for such a behemoth? In fact no, it wouldn’t. ESCC came to the early conclusion that incineration, though admittedly bad, was the least worst option. Recycling, as we now know, will not solve the problem of plastic waste. It is better described as downcycling anyway because it ends up as traffic cones or rugs which eventually have to be disposed of. Landfill doesn’t make plastic go away or turn into anything else. The most effective form of disposal is incineration.
Among the many arguments against effective disposal is that it will encourage higher production and just perpetuate the problem, on the same principle that if you widen the M25 to ease traffic congestion, you just get more people using the M25. A better response to the traffic problem would be to improve other methods of transport and reduce the need for people to travel in the first place, but that’s not how planners think. And anyway road-building is supposed to stimulate the economy (the modern debt-based economy has to grow or die, remember). The other stimulus is to start a war; Hitler famously applied both remedies to the German economy in the 1930s. Well, we are involved in plenty of proxy wars, selling huge numbers of weapons to trigger-happy middle Eastern potentates, but this is not the place to go off on that particular tangent. Let me just mention that the global weapons industry is worth over $370 billion anually (SIPRI) and the pressure to upscale it comes from our economic and banking system in which tomorrow’s growth is the collateral for today’s debt. In other words the economic model we are saddled with has to grow constantly in order not to collapse under its own weight.
We can’t introduce other materials than plastic to do the same job, but can we reduce the amount of it? In theory yes, but not in time. Sudden plastic reduction would have a serious effect on the global economy. Apart from anything else it would put up food prices and increase food waste. A shrink-wrapped cucumber lasts ten times longer on a supermarket shelf and in your fridge, because it doesn’t go mouldy. The number of people employed in the plastics industry itself, making the material, designing and making the shrink-wrapping, injection moulding and forming machines and operating them is enormous. The sector that designs and manufactures such machines is currently worth over $650 billion per year (GVR Inc). The plastic product and packaging manufacturing industry is itself worth another $488 billion (IBISWorld). Add those two figures and you get three times the value of the global weapons industry.
Transition Town Lewes has the slogan ‘local solutions to global problems’. Is there anything we can meaningfully do at a local level about the global plastic waste problem? Plastic Free Lewes (PFL, not to be confused with the PLF, though I’m sure we’d all like to see Palestine liberated) meets once a month to discuss solutions and report on progress. To an extent, PFL is pushing on an open door. Everybody hates what plastic is doing to our world. Nobody wants to see plastic outweigh fish in our oceans. But we are trapped. If all plastics were to be suddenly whipped away, our whole civilisation would instantly collapse. We do what we can. We reuse, refuse, reduce, recycle and do actions outside supermarkets. But it will not stop timber merchants wrapping crates in swathes of plastic, nor your new computer being packed in expanded polystyrene. That particular door is going to take a lot more pushing to open all the way.
APPLYING THE LEVERAGE
Many years ago I read a book. So long ago I can’t remember the title let alone the author’s name. (I have tried to google it but to no avail.) What it said in essence was this: ‘Democratic governments no longer serve their electorates. Government now exists primarily to provide service and infrastructure for big business. This means that if we want to change things it’s no use applying to our political representatives or going on demonstrations; we must exert our consumer power. Which we can do, paradoxically, with greater and more immediate effect than if we lobbied our MP. Business is highly sensitive to its customers because success depends on response to buying trends.’ For example, 100 people could change Tesco’s head office policy by going into their local branch (at different times, not all together, that would alarm them) and saying they would no longer shop there because they didn’t like the amount of plastic. Or, to take another issue close to my heart, 100 customers could influence the British weapons manufacturing industry by going to a trade fair and saying they didn’t like the indiscriminate sale of weapons to fascist states. More difficult, obviously, to pose as a ballistic missile customer than as a supermarket customer but you get my point. We can directly change the world because those who supply us with what we need can’t do without our money. If we tell them what we do and don’t like about their service it will change the way they behave.
There’s also the matter of education. This town, though certainly a plastic waste offender, is not the worst in the country, and the UK is not the worst in the world, though it is the second worst in Europe. We in the UK contribute just 0.2% (254,000 tonnes annually) of total global plastic waste entering the oceans. The worst offender in the world is China with nearly a quarter of the annual total of 12.7 million tonnes, a fair proportion of which is probably from the landfill waste that Europe sends to China and doesn’t actually end up in landfill. But be that as it may, we can’t do anything about educating China. We can, however, educate our own growing generation, and we can educate our own chain stores and supermarkets by going in there and telling the duty manager what we think. If you are interested in joining one of PFL’s groups on education, supermarkets, local traders, drinking water or recycling, do it now!
NEXT MONTH: microbes and ocean clean-up.