I was born in 1965, the year the plastic bag was invented.
During my childhood, in a boom city in central India, I remember plastic bags were still relatively rare. Only the more expensive shops gave them out and my mother treasured hers, using and reusing them, admiring their strength and how easy they were to rinse out.
In the intervening years, time has sped up for the plastic bag, imparting something so durable with an astonishing ephemerality. It’s estimated that the average time for which they are used is now just 15 minutes, after which they will take up to 1,000 years to break down. Two million are distributed per minute worldwide.
Half of all the plastic items produced each year are single-use. There is no way we can say we consume them – as in using them up – rather we are creatures of their dispersal and disposal, so that the plastics industry can churn out yet more. Plastics are inextricably intertwined with fossil fuel companies: all major plastics producers either own or are owned by oil and gas companies, and accounted for six per cent of global oil consumption in 2014. These are industries that have shown a supernatural resistance to curbing their environmentally destructive activities.
Our glut of plastic – every single bit of it ever made is still with us apart from the minor portion that has been burned – has come to symbolize a throwaway world. The amount of plastic produced in a year is roughly the entire weight of the human beings living upon it.
The oceanic Great Pacific Garbage Patch of floating plastic is three times the size of France. Coca-Cola alone sends out 120 billion plastic bottles each year – enough to circle our planet 700 times. We discard this stuff, often without a second thought, but also because there is so much of it and it just keeps coming – either as packaging for the things we buy or as the throwaway things themselves.
I remember when a family member brought a pack of cotton buds to our house, my mother saved a few of the plastic stalks, which she would reuse by twirling a little puff of cotton wool around one end. Previously, she had made do with the end of a hair pin. She could not see the need for ever purchasing such an item again or the logic of throwing away something that had not been destroyed.
Eventually, she too was defeated by plastic, when cooking oil started coming in plastic jugs instead of being refilled in a glass bottle by our grocer. (A step up in hygiene and quality control for sure.) She ran out of other things to store in the empties, and then she ran out of poorer people who were willing to take them, thus being forced to confront the destiny the producers of the object had created for it – trash.
Today the plastic crisis regularly makes headlines. It chokes our marine environment. It gets eaten by aquatic creatures, sea birds and even livestock. Burning it releases powerful toxins. Landfilling it, though somewhat safer, clogs the earth with synthetic substances that refuse to decompose. Numerous Majority World countries, including 25 in Africa, have brought in bans on single-use plastic bags – but enforcement usually lags.
In October the BBC broadcast Drowning in plastic, a documentary about the devastation the material was causing to the marine environment. It showed how all the cumulative efforts to tackle the problem were being wiped out by the continually accelerating pace of production. It covered public-spirited clean-ups, entire communities engaging in collecting plastic for recycling, efforts to develop bioplastic from seaweed in Indonesia, gadgets and gizmos to gather the stuff from the waters, only to conclude they weren’t even scratching the surface. Whereas previous BBC forays into this territory had ended with the hand-wringing conclusion that it was down to all of us to do our bit, this time the presenter offered a more radical perspective: it is time to turn off the plastics tap.
Radical this may be for the BBC but environmentalists have been saying this about many waste issues for decades – it is better to tackle the problem at the top of the cliff than to attempt to pick up the pieces at the foot (though that is also necessary). Today, to try to live without excess plastic requires the perseverance of a medieval saint because, guess what, the system is rigged: all the default options involve plastic. Systemic change would be the most effective solution rather than settling for actions by individuals with their limited social power.
It’s a message that gets short shrift from industry and a political system addicted to growth. Plastic remains a fantastic material – cheap (if one doesn’t count the environmental cost), strong, durable, hygienic; but the way it has been over-employed and misused represents an ‘incredibly reckless use of technology’. And such recklessness is the order of the day.
This year Earth Overshoot Day – the day when we have used more from nature than can be renewed in a year – fell on 1 August. Next year it is predicted to fall in July. At a national level the US zipped past on 15 March, Britain on 8 May.
Our vision of perpetual prosperity is built upon the transient and throwaway – because that’s where resales come from. It is a vision that is imprisoning vast numbers of the global workforce in near slave-like conditions to produce the cheap – and sometimes not-so-cheap – stuff that must be piled high, extracting planetary resources at an unprecedented and irreplaceable level. We may talk of looming resource wars, or a planet choking on its junk, but we won’t give up growth, which is the economic dogma of our times. Increasing volumes of rubbish of all kinds, not just plastic, aren’t just a consequence of population growth, but also of our lifestyles, particularly in the West. Per person we’re chucking out more stuff than we ever have in history and there is no sign of slowdown, regardless of a diffuse environmental concern in the public mind.
Today the amount of municipal solid waste – domestic and institutional (small businesses, schools and the like) – we generate each year would circle the planet 24 times if it were piled on to trucks. This waste, of which the domestic share is only 30 per cent, gets all the angst. But industrial waste, which gets rather fewer headlines, is 18 times as much. In wealthy countries it amounts to 42 kilos being spewed out per person each day – that’s before a product lands on the shelf. Those trucks are doing some serious circling now.
That’s because in growth-driven economies, durability is anathema and obsolescence is god. This is a lesson learned from ever-increasing industrial productivity. In 1928, Paul Mazur, an investment banker and partner at Lehman brothers, addressed the Advertising Club of New York and spelled it out: ‘Wear alone… [is] too slow for the needs of American industry. And so the high priests of business elected a new god to take its place along with – or even before – the other household gods. Obsolescence was made supreme… If what filled the consumer market yesterday could only be made obsolete today, that whole market would be again available tomorrow.’
Many consumer organizations have studied how even many relatively expensive goods, like electronic items, seem to be programmed to give up the ghost when the warranty period expires. In the digital age, obsolescence speeds up further with appliances getting out of date sooner than their life spans. And for the hardcore who will continue using something without the ‘latest’ update, it is the programmed unrepairability built into the gadgets where they come unstuck.
Steve Jobs went on record as saying, ‘If you… want the latest and greatest…you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year.’ He also said, ‘Apple has a really strong environmental policy.’
Durability has been recommended since at least the 1980s by sage international fora like the OECD as a means of tackling the solid waste problem. But with economic growth used as the yardstick of performance by governments, it doesn’t stand a chance. Consumers would love government action that compelled industry to work on durability, repairability and upgradeability preferably with a guarantee of lifelong support.
Sadly there is no continually profitable economic model for a product that lasts. Unless it is filling a niche, like the outdoor-clothing firm Patagonia that urges its customers to buy its clothes only if they really need to and offers repair services. It has been rewarded with very healthy growth – customers buying more and more of their product. (One can, of course, argue that if all firms behaved in this way, consumption – and profits – would eventually fall.)
As JB MacKinnon put it in The New Yorker: ‘Sustainability thinkers increasingly recognize that the efforts of industrialized nations to “decouple” economic growth from its environmental impacts have not succeeded. Despite a conspicuous boom in energy-efficient, recyclable, biodegradable, and non-toxic products on the market, resource exploitation continues to intensify.’
At this point in time, the most favoured buzz concept that tries to graft a bit of sustainability onto the essentially expansionary nature of capitalism is the ‘circular economy’. It’s an updated form of extended producer responsibility (which has been around for years) that’s a bit have your cake and eat it. Key is the principle that producers would recalibrate their systems so that their products could be reclaimed by them for the material resources and component parts, and remade into the latest versions which could again be re-sold. Growth but with lower material input.
While we’re waiting for that, here’s the current reality. The deluge of trash generated by overproduction and overconsumption is still waiting for its dam. With the tap showing no chance of being turned off at the policy end, attention continues to focus on how we behave as individual consumers. This is undoubtedly important, as there is much we can do to cut down on the rubbish we generate. But it is curious that it is the third item of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra that people automatically think of when it comes to trash. Sorting our recyclables has become ritualized expiation. However, we need to remember that recycling is a form of waste management rather than waste reduction. To make a true dent in the waste pile we still need to refuse to buy where we can (especially when it comes to excessive packaging), reduce for sure (2-for-1 offers notwithstanding), share where possible, and reuse (even when it may be unfashionable).
As for recycling, yes it’s much better than using virgin materials, though it seems to be having little effect on extraction. It’s better than sending stuff off to landfill or the incinerator, but what many of us do not realize is that it’s an industrial process requiring significant quantities of energy, which produces toxic waste and often results in ‘down-cycling’: plastic bottles, for example, rarely get recycled back into plastic bottles but into non-recyclable carpets and synthetic clothing. (And every wash of a machine-load of the latter will release 700,000 microplastic particles.)
And market forces play havoc with recycling. Waste management companies in the West inevitably find it more profitable to landfill or burn than to recycle. Recyclable scrap looks for the best markets and often heads off to countries with huge waste management problems of their own. In Australia, recycling companies have built up stockpiles of thousands of tonnes of collected glass waiting to be recycled. Why? Because imported new glass bottles are cheaper. Meanwhile, there are also many creative uses of the term recycling. Sweden used to claim a near 100 per cent recycling rate because it regarded the energy generated from burning rubbish as recycling. And Australian waste companies have been saying they were recycling when trucking construction waste across state borders where it would end up as landfill.
One person’s waste…
For decades, hazardous Western electronic waste, which has been growing at a much faster rate than the overall municipal waste stream, has been flowing to numerous destinations in the Global South. It is ‘processed’ in conditions that expose workers to risk. The shipping countries called it recycling, the recipient countries dumping. Today with the spread of legislation regulating the movement of e-waste and management in the wake of the Basel Convention, the export of electronic items to many African counties has changed somewhat. Many are being shipped as used or repairable rather than scrap, as charitable donations even, to get past the laws, when in reality they will break down again in a short period of time to head for the dump.
The vast open dumps of the Majority World are often a source of horrified wonder, their picturesque quality adding colour to many a Sunday supplement. Here waste is revealed for what it is: a loss of resources. The waste pickers are often glorified as its heroes, salvaging what is still of worth. In fact these are people who would rather be doing something else, but have no choice, who work in dirty, foul-smelling and dangerous conditions, who are relegated to the bottom rung of the social ladder.
If the tottering waste mountain is leading to a search for desperate solutions in the wealthy West, it can look much worse in the Global South where municipal provision is poor. But this is despite the average person here being much more adept at using up and reusing things. Informal networks exist to sell old paper, metal and clothes even in the small quantities generated by households. People in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia throw away just six to 11 kilos of food per year compared to 95 to 115 in Europe and North America.
It’s the cheap stuff that no-one knows what to do with that’s the major problem. The largest contribution of plastic pollution in waterways comes from Asian countries where dumps are often by riversides. It’s not that people don’t see what plastic is doing to their environments, but that they don’t see that they have an option.
Bonfire of vanities
We cheer when the Indian state of Sikkim bans plastic bags or the Mayan village of San Pedro La Laguna goes even further including straws and polystyrene containers. We look charitably upon creative people involved in upcycling waste, even though we know these are tiny, boutique efforts. We wonder about some techno-biological ‘solutions’ – caterpillars that reportedly eat plastic, Chinese cockroach farms for food waste (the cockroaches, in turn, being turned into pellets to feed pigs), the Indian scientist lacing asphalt with plastic…
And increasingly we get angry at being made the agents of greater wastefulness – as evidenced by citizen actions against packaging waste. In Britain the wave of consumer activism to force Walkers to recycle their crisps packaging could be a sign of larger things to come – and it’s got producers of throwaway packaging worried. However, the long view involves resisting an economic system and its pernicious treadmill culture. As the environmentalist writer George Monbiot writes: ‘One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilizing against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.’ Do we dare to imagine an economic system in which production had democratic oversight so that we only produce what we need, sustainably, rather than the current wasteful and capricious corporate cycles?
We must recognize excessive waste for what it is: a shocking loss of resources at the cost of our environment, engineered by the very system we are living under. One particular bonfire of our vanities is illustrative. In July, news emerged that British fashion brand Burberry had burned more than £28 million ($36m) worth of its unused clothing and cosmetics products over the past year in an attempt to prevent counterfeiting. Apparently this is not unusual with excess stock among luxury producers. Trashed for the greater good of the brand. Burberry had earlier signed up to an initiative to prevent waste in the fashion industry. To show how serious they were, they said they had worked with specialist companies who harnessed the energy from this almighty blaze to make it environmentally friendly. That’s alright, then.
I cannot help but think of my mother, who was ever tempted by a new sari, but who could not imagine – like most Indians – ever binning a piece of clothing let alone burning it. As children our trousers were let down to keep up with our growth. Sweaters were unravelled and re-knitted in new designs. Items in decent wear never become unfashionable – they just found new owners. And things that had truly had their day got cut into dusters, swabbing rags and patches. This was almost instinctual. To her it was all about knowing the true worth of things.