- Created: Thursday, 15 February 2018 15:41
- Written by Brian Henry
It sounded like a grand and radical plan, and not before time. On 11 January 2018 Prime Minister Theresa May launched a 25-year war on plastic waste, calling it ‘one of the great environmental scourges of our time’. It is, of course, a global crisis. The amount of plastic produced each year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity. 8.3bn tonnes have been produced since the 1950s, with the majority ending up in landfill or the ocean. One study warns that the plastic crisis threatens the ‘near-permanent contamination of the planet’. Plastic takes hundred of years to decompose but ‘microplastic’ particles are already contaminating our food and drinking water. Imperialist nations export the after-effects of throwaway consumerism to poor countries, where impoverished children scavenge for valuable recyclables. As Pope Francis said in 2015, ‘the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’. Urgent and sustained action is required. But predictably, for Britain’s part, May’s plan barely touches the surface. Brian Henry reports.
Unveiling the proposals at London Wetlands Centre, May said that ‘in the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls’. She announced that:
● the 5p charge for plastic carrier bags will be extended to all retailers in England.
● a consultation on single-use products could see consumers face new taxes on takeaway food packaging, including disposable coffee cups.
● supermarkets will be urged to set up a plastic-free aisle in every store.
None of these measures will be backed up by legislation. The final recommendation looks especially weak – a MoneySavingExpert.com investigation found that most vegetables were cheaper to buy wrapped in plastic than loose. And a week after May’s announcement, the government agency charged with overseeing the idea, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, laid off 25 employees – more than 10% of its staff.
The dustbin of Europe
Forcing the Tory government’s hand somewhat is China’s ban on imports of plastic waste. British companies have shipped more than 2.7 million tonnes of it to China and Hong Kong since 2012 – two-thirds of the UK’s total plastic waste exports. China has been threatening to make the move since 2008 but no preparations have been made. Britain will undoubtedly look for somewhere new – British plastics firms are joining Trade Secretary Liam Fox on a business trip to India in February.
According to waste management company Suez, Britain is rapidly running out of landfill capacity. The country was declared ‘the dustbin of Europe’ in 2010 for burying more than 18.8 million tonnes of household waste, 2 million tonnes more than any other EU nation. There is also the possibility that the 3 million or so tonnes Britain exports to the EU in non-recyclable waste will stay at home after Brexit, which may also bring about weaker environmental regulations.
There has been some small progress: the use of single-use carrier bags dropped to 500 million in the first six months after the 5p charge was introduced, compared with 7 billion the previous year. And plastic microbeads used in cosmetics and cleaning products have been banned. But recycling rates stalled in England in 2012 and in 2015 fell for the first time in more than a decade. And May has pledged only to eliminate ‘avoidable’ plastic waste, which begs the question: what is ‘unavoidable’ and according to whom? Can a man-made product really be defined as ‘unavoidable’? What May really means is ‘where the impact on profits is minimal’.
The British plastics industry employs 170,000 people in 6,200 firms, turning over £23.5bn a year. Unsurprisingly, it is resistant to change. Plastic made from fossil fuel is a cheap and easy form of packaging for mass production. Switching to alternatives would be costly. In the US, fossil fuel companies are among those who since 2010 have invested more than $186bn in 318 new ‘cracking’ facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics. The new facilities – being built by corporations like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical – will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade. The investment has been driven by the shale gas boom in the US, which has resulted in a dramatic drop in the price of natural gas liquids, one of the raw materials used to produce plastic resin. May, too, is committed to shale gas drilling.
Only a relative minority of capitalists are pursuing alternatives that can be made from soy, grass, corn, hemp or sugar cane. The benefit to society if this could be done wholesale would be immense: the production of 200,000 tonnes of sugar-based plastic, for example, represents an annual reduction of 800,000 tonnes of CO2 – the plastic crisis is very much bound up with the climate crisis. Plastic made from sugar cane is durable, protective and 100% recyclable. However, where it is used the products are expensive.
None of May’s policies address the essential problem that billions of items thrown into recycling bins each year simply can’t be recycled – at least not economically. Often this is because they are designed with aesthetics in mind instead of the environment. Crisp packets, for example, use two types of plastic with a foil layer inside, making them unrecyclable unless they are painstakingly segregated from other items and then specially microwaved to cook off the different materials at their respective boiling temperatures – an expensive and energy-consuming process. Picking out and separating small items is either labour-intensive or requires a large investment in machinery. With recycled plastic selling at between £35 and £75 per tonne, picking out straws, for example, is not ‘cost effective’. This also means many biodegradable items end up in landfill but linger for years because they are starved of oxygen and light. Industry has gone backwards in that tins and clear plastics that are easy to recycle have increasingly been replaced with mixed materials that are hard to separate, such as sandwich packs that use laminated cardboard with plastic windows.
Fewer types of plastics and simpler product designs would quickly improve recycling rates. Recycling companies say the government should take real action and ban unrecyclable packaging immediately. This recommendation has been made by the Environmental Audit Committee with regards to disposable coffee cups if they are not fully recyclable by 2023. Britain gets through 7 million a day – 2.5 billion a year. Only one in 400 get recycled because although they are mostly made of paper, the inside is a layer of waterproof polyethylene plastic. They need to go to specialised centres, but only three such places in Britain exist.
Some manufacturers have started developing biodegradable plastics made from starch polymers. But although this breaks down quickly it is still single-use and the materials are not recovered. Britain needs to increase the number of composting sites required to process these relatively new materials. A greater number of specific collections to take waste to composting sites are also required because compostable plastics can ruin a whole batch of traditional plastic recycling if the two types are mixed. Economic incentives again pose a problem: when the oil price is low, ‘virgin’ plastics are often cheaper than recycled ones.
Impact on health
An estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year. Greenpeace says a truckload of plastic enters the sea every minute. Travelling on ocean currents, plastic is turning up in every corner of the planet – from Cornish beaches to uninhabited Pacific islands. It is even being found trapped in Arctic ice. The United Nations Environment Programme says that, at current rates, there will likely be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. May said she had been moved to act by the ‘immense suffering’ of marine life, something that the popular BBC series Blue Planet has brought to public consciousness. One in three turtles and 90% of seabirds are now estimated to have ingested plastic. Big pieces choke and entangle and tiny pieces clog the stomachs of creatures who mistake it for food, from tiny zooplankton to whales. Plastic is now entering every level of the ocean food chain and even ending up in the seafood on our plates.
A study published by Orb Media revealed in September 2017 that billions of people are also drinking tap water contaminated by plastic particles, with the impact on human health unknown. The US had the highest contamination rate at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency headquarters and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates. European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, but still at 72%. The average number of fibres found in each 500ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.
Then there is the ‘plastic dust’ from the wear and tear of tyres – 63,000 tonnes of it in Britain each year – which contributes to the above problems and the poor quality of air when it is blown into the atmosphere; and the up to 700,000 microfibres shed with each wash by clothes made from acrylic, polyester, polymide, spandex and nylon.
The plastic crisis cannot be separated from capitalism’s inherently anarchic system of production, which is illustrated most soberly by the fact that the world produces enough food to feed 10 billion people – 2.4 billion more than necessary – while almost 800 million go to bed hungry and up to 2 billion suffer from malnutrition. In the US, half of all food produce is thrown away. Overproduction is the expression of capitalism in crisis, whereby expansion is necessitated by the needs of capital accumulation. The profit motive relegates the needs of people and the planet to an afterthought. Furthermore, the luxury lifestyles of the rich and middle classes produce unnecessary waste on a monumental scale, especially in the imperialist nations – the average US citizen emits more carbon than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi. Consumption is driven not by population size or growth but by purchasing power.1
Under socialism, production would focus almost solely on the essential products humans need for a decent standard of living. Production – including recycling – would be centralised and planned under state and workers’ control, meaning packaging designs could be made uniformly simple and easy to process. Fossil fuel use would be phased out as quickly as possible so that plastics were made from eco-friendly alternatives. Single-use wrapping could be greatly reduced. Thousands of people wasted in unemployment and unfulfilling jobs that contribute nothing to the progress of society could be deployed on missions to clean up rivers and beaches.2
May claimed that her 25-year plan would ‘leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it’. Looking at the ‘immense pile of filth’ capitalism has created, you’d think it could hardly get any worse. But, as long as this mode of production exists, it surely will.
2. See: Socialism is good for the environment – FRFI 214 April/May 2010
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 262 February/March 2018