A new age
The Space Age, the Information Age, the Social Age… contemporary culture has gained a number of labels for itself over the past century. These ages typically arise following a major technological breakthrough, such as space travel, computer science or social media in the cases above. But ages need not necessarily be to do with technology. In his excellent collection of essays ‘How did we get into this mess?’, George Monbiot proposes that we are now living in the Age of Loneliness, brought on by the individualism advocated by the capitalist creed.¹
I propose another name, the Plastic Age.
In the past 50 years or so, since plastic became a ubiquitous part of everyday life, an estimated 8.3 bn megatonnes of plastic products have been made. A 2017 study by Geyer et al. estimates that 60% of these products are now in landfill, 30% are in use and only 10% have been recycled, repurposed or incinerated. That the amount of plastic in use today is half of the total plastic dumped shows just how much our dependency on these materials is growing.
Plastic pollution is appalling in some of the most remote parts of the world, as was recently documented in BBC’s Blue Planet series. One example is Henderson Island. On 16th May 2017, Elle Hunt reported in the Guardian that 18 tonnes of manmade debris was lying on the beaches of this previously paradisiacal Pacific island, with 13,000 new items washing up every day. There are sad stories of plastic being used as shells for crabs, seals being strangled by ropes and cords and turtles’ shells growing constrained to the circumference of six-pack rings. As well as causing external injury, plastic ingestion is a massive problem for wildlife, as can be seen in the case of the Layman Albatross below.
And that’s just the plastic we can see…
The deep ocean is largely unaccessible for human exploration and scientific measurements. The lack of sunlight and oxygen means plastics won’t be broken down there, so deep ocean could potentially be worse than we might expect and have unknown effects on ecosystems world wide. Who knows how much plastic accumulates in these depths? Plastic pollution is at an all time high and shows little sign of becoming less of a problem. Some estimates claim that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by volume)!
Plastic fashion and killer whales
Unbelievably, 35% of plastic in the environment comes from clothes. This is not necessarily just from disposal, but from threads and fibres released during the washing process. These fibres, almost invisible to the naked eye, then make their way into water systems and can enter the food chain. In a recent talk at Manchester Vegan Festival, professional ecologist Emma Thompson (a.k.a. @ThevEcologist) claimed it is probably the case that the micro plastics we can’t see are much more problematic than visible ones.
Whilst a few microscopic pieces of plastic may not pose an existential issue to the bacteria which ingests them, they begin to accumulate as life forms are consumed up the food chain. Residual plastic builds up in small fish which eat bacteria, builds up further in predatory fish and then can be quite great in top predators like polar bears or killer whales. Thompson reported on a 20 year old female killer whale who had been poisoned by the plastics it had indirectly consumed and had possibly also been rendered infertile by it. Females of most species have a higher fat content, which they metabolise to feed their offspring. Toxins from plastics tend to accumulate in these areas, meaning that if a female animal is not made infertile by plastic ingestion then the associated toxins are passed on to offspring.
The accumulation of plastic based toxins in large predators is called the ‘biomagnification’ effect. I use the word toxin because ingested plastic is mostly carcinogenic and can contain a terrifying array of unnatural substances, such as DDT (which was documented thoroughly in Rachel Carson’s pioneering book on pesticides and herbicides ‘Silent Spring’, which arguably started the environmental movement). As a warning, fish eating humans are possibly subjecting themselves to the biomagnification effect, too.
Sadly, biodegradable plastics are probably not the miracle fix that some claim them to be. Biodegradable plastics simply get to the micro scale quicker, meaning they are just out of sight. They can still harm plankton and enter the food chain. Further, biodegradable products which are not oil based have to be grown especially, using valuable land. Is this a good use of land? If they are incorrectly disposed of, biodegradable plastics release methane as they decompose, thereby contributing to the broader climate change problem rather than the plastic problem.
Despite movements to reduce the amount of plastic used in products, plastic items were for some reason in vogue on the catwalk earlier this year, with plastic being declared ‘in’ for 2018. Gladly, there are some designers bucking this trend. For instance Stella McCartney has released a range of clothes which are made from plastic gathered from the ocean.
Why is this happening?
Admittedly, there are benefits in the Plastic Age. Food waste has greatly reduced now that expiration prolonging packagings are common for food products. Of course, there is also the convenience aspect of picking up a bag of rice rather than having to take your own container to the store.²
However these benefits are mainly for the consumer and producer and not the environment. In my opinion, the dawn of recycling meant that the waste issue actually got worse, for a number of reasons. Firstly, recycling itself is an energy intensive activity, typically requiring the burning of fossil fuels. And of course the recyclable materials must be made in the first place, which requires energy input too. Recycling should be the last resort before disposal or recovery, as illustrated by the classic inverted ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ pyramid shown opposite. Secondly, most items can be recycled at most 5 times before their quality degrades beyond (re)usability, implying recycling is only a temporary fix.
It seems sensible to claim that consumerism is the main cause of today’s waste-related woes. This ideology rewards behaviour which involves purchasing, whilst discouraging reduced consumption. The introduction of recycling brings only very minor behavioural change, where a major shift is needed. After beginning recycling, similar products can still be bought as beforehand, with the only real adjustment being to separate out one’s waste. It could be argued the convenience aspect of recycling simply feeds consumerism and makes one think they are making a change when really they are not.
How to hold back the plastic tide
It is very easy to lose all hope and feel powerless in the face of large scale environmental, political and societal problems. But, with enough positivity, it has been shown time and again that together people can make a difference.
Just think of recent successful movements such as the removal of plastic straws from major pubs and restaurants such as Wetherspoons. Think of the number of times Donald Trump has said he will come to the UK and then backed down and postponed upon discovering how many thousands (or possibly millions) of people were planning to attend a mass protest upon his arrival and how many people signed petitions against him being allowed to enter (over 1.6 million in one case). Petitions, protests and local actions can make a difference if enough people put their minds to it. In the following I give examples of some notable efforts, and my own rather small one.
On 19th May 2017, the Guardian reported on a campaign from the circular economy promoting foundation of English sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur. The campaign points out that many household items which are commonly thought to be recyclable generally aren’t, such as Lucozade bottles, black plastic trays and whisky packaging. Further, only 14% of plastic packaging is even collected for recycling. In the face of these issues, the MacArthur Foundation launched a £1.5m competition to reduce waste.
July 2018 has been declared by some activists ‘plastic free month’. On 1st July there will be a ‘plastic attack’ action on plastic waste, focusing on supermarkets. This will involve a coordinated refusal of plastic items at the checkout, by paying for shopping, removing all plastic wrappers and then leaving these for the supermarket to dispose of. The 6 supermarkets targeted by this action were chosen because they refused to publish statistics concerning their plastic waste due to their being ‘too commercially sensitive’.
A kickstarter campaign has recently enabled the development of little balls that go in washing and extract micro plastics released by the laundry, meaning that these plastics don’t enter waterways directly. A simpler solution, of course, is to only buy plastic-free clothes, such as bamboo t-shirts.
Earlier today I participated in a (relatively minor) action against the growing waste problem. To pay respects (not exactly celebrate) on Earth Day, two of my housemates and I went on a community litter pick in our local area. It took us three hours to collect the majority of rubbish from the two nearest streets and local park, although we couldn’t get everything and there were some people littering in live action as we tried to clear it. Amongst the bags and bags of bottles, cans and coffee cups, there were mobile phones, a wrapped burrito, bicycle parts, plastic bags, plenty of NOS canisters, part of a Mobike frame and a number of disposable barbecues following recent sunny weather.
Litter is infuriating because it is just so easy to stop on a person-by-person basis – the problem is more about attitude than anything else. But perhaps it is indicative of the wider waste problem. Of course, picking up litter isn’t going to change the world. But doing the litter pick was quite a humbling experience, revealing just how deep the tendrils of consumerism seep into the fabric of the urban and natural world. We found snails living in crisp packets, rubbish buried in the soil and plants growing in glass bottles.
Through little actions like these, through attending events, contributing to movements and through just talking to people, change can happen. If everyone spared just one day to really consider that the Earth has given them everything they will ever know… perhaps then real progress can be made. Happy Earth Day!
Further reading, references and notes
Zero waste shopping
Plastic free is the next step from waste free. I’m not proposing everyone should jump straight in and try to rid all plastics from their life. However a sobering challenge is to collect all of the plastic packaging you dispose of in one week, month or year in a separate bin and actually see with your own eyes how much it adds up to. Did you really need to buy it all? Were there not any alternatives involving less plastic being made and then disposed of?
A number of zero waste online bulk stores have popped up in recent years, as well as shops with a physical presence in some more progressive cities:
- Earth concious
- Zero waste club
- Elephant box
- ‘Silent spring’, Rachel Carson (pioneering book)
- ‘How did we get into this mess?’, George Monbiot (collection of essays)
- ‘Zero waste is not about recycling more, but less’, Be a Johnson (book)
- ‘A plastic ocean’ (documentary)
- ‘Plasticised’ (documentary)
- Surfers against Sewage (environmental movement)
- ‘Plastic People’, Four Tet (has been in my head for many years)
- Image sources: header image
- : An excellent book on this topic is Olivia Laing’s ‘The art of loneliness’, which explores how it is a very common experience for people to live a very lonely life, even in the centre of a busy city. Laing tells this tale through her own experience and the harrowingly lonely tales of some famous artists, including Andy Warhol.
- : This idea is not new, by the way. In the first half of the 20th century it was common to collect items from shops using one’s own containers.