We all know that plastic is filling up our oceans. Environmentally-aware clothing brand, Finisterre, puts it like this, “A smog of microscopic plastic particles is suffocating our oceans, permeating every corner of our marine life, ecosystems and coastlines. Very little is known of the true extent of the problem, all that is certain is that we need to do all we can to stem the plastic tide.” So, plastic packaging: love it or hate it, where’s it going?
The plastic packaging trade press would have us believe that the problem with plastic isn’t plastic itself, or its manufacturers behaving myopically. The problem is that plastic packaging becomes litter and that, without it, we’d see a huge rise in food wastage – an even bigger issue. But to say that food waste is a bigger challenge than plastic pollution is a red herring of the first order.
Let’s take it back. When cotton mills were thriving, the production of cloth created a variety of by-products. Some of these were blown up very tall chimneys and the wind carried them off. The method was known as ‘elevate and disperse’. For the mill owner, the problem went away. For the surrounding population, it became an issue.
So popular was this method of pollution management that every factory in the land blew its nasty stuff into the air, and somebody else paid the price. Restrictions were eventually put in place and air pollution started to come under control: not everywhere in the world, but holes in the ozone layer did at least raise awareness of a new set of issues. As a result,consumers notice if Brand X’s factory is turning the air yellow. It doesn’t stop them driving their cars past the factory and contributing themselves, but they do notice.
Bigger single events helped to reinforce industry’sresponsibility for air pollution, not least the Chernobyl explosion in 1986. Not the same problem, of course, but suddenly people in the north of Britain were being told not to eat lamb grazed on hillsides because of the risk of airborne radiation. Was it really possible that particles from Russia could affect Shaun the Sheep in the UK?
Today, ‘elevate and disperse’ has evolved. We now have ‘submerge and disperse’. Sewerage, city waste and chemical-riddled fluids have been piped into waterways and the sea for many, many years. When this practice killed fish and other wildlife, the sea had its own way of dealing with it. Much ofthe problem vanished through natural action. But that doesn’t happen with plastics. When plastics break down, they just become smaller bits of plastic that are easier for currents to distribute, so, like a deadly virus, the crisis spreads across the globe.
Here is a problem that won’t go away. But while we are all complicit in the issue facing the environment, nobody wants to pick up the tab. Consumers have noticed the effect on marine environments and the potential to harm in the food chain, and are asking, ‘whose fault is this?’ As a body, the plastics industry is saying, ‘it’s yours’.
Not true. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enters the sea each year: that’s not all made up of irresponsibly thrown away crisp packets and water bottles.
Oddly, what the plastics forum doesn’t say is what the World Economic Forum does: that 90% of plastic waste in the world’s oceans originated from just 10 (that’s ten) rivers. Eight in Asia and two in Africations to be sorted and recycled. Draw your own conclusions, but, to me, this feels like ‘elevate and disperse’ wearing a new mask.
There aren’t many examples of companies found guilty of environmental damage who were made to pay the price. Obvious examples like Exxon Valdez come to mind, but in that case, there was a broken ship in the middle of an oil slick: cause and effect. In the case of plastics pollution, where should the blame lie?
As time reveals the true cost, a charge may well be applied to the manufacture of plastics to cover the clean-up. Consumers will pay this eventually; we always pay in the end. And this,in turn, will push up the price of food, which is one of the justifications for changing nothing on which the packaging market relies.
But we, as consumers, can take some control here. By changing our collective behaviour to address both food waste and plastic packaging, we can alter the structure of global supply and demand.
At the consumer level, if I’m forced to buy loose fruit only, I’ll buy as much as I need. Present me with a bag of 10 bananas, and I’ll buy it and probably throw some of them away, because the conditions I store bananas in aren’t controlled, they over-ripen very quickly and food is wasted right there. Take away the distribution channel for plastic banana bags, and a reduction in supply is forced back up the line. Do this enough, and the shape of industry changes.
It’s really easy for us as consumers to behave as we’re asked – to pay for convenience that comes in the many shapes of plastic. Industry has an incentive to provide us with ever-easier ways to consume its new ideas. But we must take responsibility for our own decisions. We are where we are,and we can blame others, or be the change we want to see. Unless we start to be proactive, it’s really possible that the sea will fill with plastic, and eating fish will become a thing of the past. So, let’s start to question why bananas come in plastic bags (as an example), and then perhaps choose to avoid them.
Across the supply chain for consumer products – furniture, cars, food, houses, clothes – plastic is a synonym for ‘convenience’. Hardwood takes a long time to grow and is difficult to work with, so we allow brands to make chairs and tables out of plastic. Cars used to be hammered out of metal and leather. Now they are plastic inside and out. We can see why it has happened. We can’t go back, and we probably wouldn’t want to. Our way of life has evolved with plastics making most of it possible. But we can be selective about how we allow brands to supply us. These are the questions that will force change and literally reshape our world, and you and I have to be the ones to ask them.
As an old Marxist once said, ‘Question everything’.
Seeing it differently. Future-proofing. It’s what we do.