Distracted by Plastic

In a week’s time our news feed will once again be filled with information surrounding the latest Extinction Rebellion protest in Bristol, Leeds, Cardiff, Glasgow and London. I think a number of people will be frustrated by the potential disruption to their days, especially if they view themselves as conscientious world citizens. But ultimately, it’s too late for passivity and apathetic behaviour – not using plastic straws isn’t going to stop this climate crisis. The current debate surrounding the climate crisis has clouded and confused the steps we have to take in order to fight global heating. In short, we’ve been distracted by plastic.

The origins of our plastic obsession

On 1st January, 2018 the last episode of Blue Planet II aired. The episode featured the damaging effects that plastic can have on wildlife, and showed how extensively our oceans had been polluted via our existence. Something remarkable happened during the showing of that final episode – people listened. According to a study by GlobalWebIndex just over 50% of people in the US and the UK have reduced their usage of disposable plastic due to what they describe as the ‘Attenborough Effect’. However, I think that our animosity towards plastic is much older than this, otherwise the UK government’s plastic bag charge wouldn’t have been adopted in 2015. The overall effect of this policy saw a decrease in supermarket plastic bag usage by 86%. These are all reasons we still use today to judge our friends for their plastic bag usage, and not something that originated from the luxurious voice of David Attenborough. 

The origins of the plastic bag levy aren’t necessarily tied to the current climate crisis argument. In fact, one of the main sources for support from campaigners was the amount of littering that was present, and they viewed this as a way to combat that. This was much more an aesthetic argument than a climate crisis crusade. Don’t get me wrong, cutting down on littering in turn does help the natural environment, but it’s a separate issue to the climate crisis we currently face. In fact, the carbon footprint of long-life bags are dramatically worse than standard plastic carrier bags, with a study in 2011 concluding that in the case of cotton bags, they have to be reused 100 times in order to be a better environmental option. 

So what?

As we can see from the origins of the movement towards the levy on plastic bags, plastic isn’t a central figure in the climate crisis debate. The ‘Attenborough effect’ was the catalyst that helped to accelerate our aversion to plastic, rather than the root cause and it’s great that we take a stand against something that is damaging our natural environment. But overall, I’m concerned that by focusing so much on plastic, we are losing sight of the oncoming issue of climate crisis, and it’s completely understandable why. The sight of a cute seal enwrapped in plastic netting, or turtles with a 6-pack-ring misshaping its shell are highly emotive things to see, whereas having to imagine what the environmental issues look like are far less tangible. Ultimately it’s much easier to face the monster we can see, versus the one we can’t. 

Additionally, the anti-plastic movement sentiment can sometimes border on lunacy. By condemning all use of plastic, some consumers are pushing for things such as milk in glass bottles, and other produce in cardboard containers etc, or without any plastic at all. This is frankly unfeasible and narrow minded. By adopting glass containers, the product will have a much larger carbon footprint due to the increased weight involved in moving the good to its final location, furthermore glass is liable to break, and so you have a much greater risk of getting to the final location with less product due to breakages. Additionally recycling glass is rather energy intensive, and so it reaps much less benefits than the recycling of newspaper, steel and aluminium (but it’s still beneficial – don’t fear!). For the products without any packaging at all, this tends to massively impact shelf life of the product, at which point the wilted product will quickly be thrown into the bin/food waste rather than being used at all. By being so ardently anti-plastic we seem to overlook the benefits of the product in the first place to the extent that we may be risking a step backwards by taking a blanket anti-plastic approach. Yes overpackaging is a thing, and it’s great to combat it, but even so this fight against plastic isn’t necessarily the same as a fight against climate crisis. 

The issues

There’s a massive issue with false equivalency that happens with our confrontation with climate crisis. It’s very common for people to breakdown their behaviour into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, so not using plastic straws = good, and going on a flight = bad. However, this means that the magnitude of these decisions is ignored, not using plastic straws probably saves roughly 50 straws (almost a gin and tonic a week) which has a tiny carbon footprint vs one transatlantic flight. Furthermore, there’s also the issue that people think they’re doing a good deed by recycling in general, despite the recent revelation that huge amounts of our plastic are just being shipped overseas to locations like Malaysia and dumped into landfill. You could argue that every little helps, but I think that it’s in our nature to reward our ‘good’ behaviour and that reward will often take the form of something that is inherently bad for the environment. 

The other huge issue is that we’ve managed to centre the debate so much on consumer behaviour. It’s as if ‘not buying this, but buying this‘ will help fight climate crisis. This is not the case. Climate crisis is a massive systemic issue, which realistically needs more legislative and governmental action implementing things such as a carbon tax and investing more in green technology etc, the Brown family cutting down their Sunday roasts to not have any beef is not going to stop the oncoming tide of crap that is on the horizon. But by making this debate so centred on ourselves it’s difficult for us to think about the most effective ways to fight this crisis as a collective whole. It’s not the family that eat beef once a week that’s the issue, but the individuals who profit from the continued use of fossil fuels and who deliberately obfuscate the truth that are the issue here, and the only way we’re going to be able to take them on is by putting pressure on the government to get on board with this battle. 

So what do we do?

Here’s a couple of tips for things that I think could help fight the fight:

  1. Stop referring to the current climate crisis as ‘Climate Change’ or ‘Global Warming’, as this has been used by the Trump administration and many other people as a point of belittlement whenever there’s a cold snap, and also as phrases they don’t necessarily reflect the severity of the situation
  2. Write to your MP, and put pressure on them to take the current issue seriously. The current plan to be carbon-neutral by 2050 is too little too late. We need to act much quicker if we are going to make a difference.
  3. Talk to people about this, try and implement more sustainable practices into your place of work and support those that are brave enough to face imprisonment or worse for the future of this planet. 
  4. Go to this website: https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/ This is an amazing tool that will let you see what aspects of your current life are unsustainable and what you can change about your own behaviour to help the current issue.
  5. And finally, please please please stop being distracted by plastic.

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