Since the screening of BBC’s Blue Planet II, plastic pollution has often been in the headlines. While it might seem like a recent phenomenon, the plastics lobby have known about it for decades. Sadly, by employing tactics to hide the environmental impacts and oppose regulation, they’ve caused plastic consumption to soar and pollution to reach crisis levels.
There’s no denying that plastic is a miraculous material that has changed our lives. But one of its best qualities - virtual indestructibility – is exactly the reason disposable plastic is so dangerous to the environment. Unfortunately, plastics manufacturers can sell a lot more disposable products than long-life products, which means packaging has become their largest industry. What’s more, companies that benefit from disposable packaging – everyone from oil companies to plastics manufacturers, beverage companies to supermarkets – have formed powerful lobbies to protect the industry.
The plastics lobby have always justified their environmental impact by pointing to recycling as the solution. It seems strange that the same lobby pushes governments to reduce recycling targets. Hold on! Aren’t they meant to be supporting more recycling? In 2016, the industry (plastic producers and lobby groups) submitted 25 responses to a UK Government consultation on recycling - all but one pushed for a reduction in recycling targets. They successfully reduced targets in the UK from 57% to 49%. Perhaps this shows they are fully aware of the low recyclability rate of plastic as compared to paper, aluminium and glass.
It’s not just recycling targets that the plastics lobby has opposed. In Germany, Sweden and Norway, a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles has resulted in recycling rates of over 90%. The idea of a DRS is that the consumer pays a small amount on the price of the bottle and then when the bottle is returned, that amount is refunded to encourage bottle returns. For years, the UK plastics lobby has fought against this proven solution. In 2017, letters written to the Environment Minister showed trade bodies were ‘unanimous’ in their opposition to deposit return schemes. Why? It would affect sales. As far back as 1971, the industry admitted that having no deposit scheme would mean twenty times more sales.
Many of us first heard about plastic pollution in the 1990’s thanks to Charles Moore, who discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. But the industry knew about the potential plastic pollution problem long before that! Images of decaying albatross with plastic in their stomach were featured in a 1969 research paper on marine birdlife.
In the 1970’s at a US National Academy of Sciences conference, companies like Dow Chemical and Esso, publicly acknowledged the dangers of plastic and polystyrene use. It was then that they decided to shift the blame for this plastic pollution entirely. Instead of looking at the plastic pollution their products were creating, they pushed the responsibility onto the consumer who they blamed for littering.
The plastic industry has gone even further to push their agenda by adopting strategies once employed by Big Tobacco. For example, they’ve formed so-called “non-profit organisations” to fight plastic bag bans and fees via the ‘Save the Plastic Bag Coalition’ and the paper cup 25p charge proposal via the ‘Paper Cup Alliance’. They fund projects and organisations, such as Earth911 and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ‘marine debris’ conferences focussed on plastic pollution. All are organisations that should be opposing the industry; instead they are funded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and Coca Cola.
With their deep pockets and well-honed tactics, Big Plastic may seem unstoppable. But, just like Big Tobacco, growing public awareness is starting to bring change. Just this week, the UK Government finally committed to a DRS for plastic bottles. Surfers Against Sewage delivered a petition with 329,000 signatories to 10 Downing Street. How could they say no? Public pressure works, but only in numbers.
Not all consumers want single-use disposable plastics. Those who are dismayed by plastic pollution should be aware of the powerful industry players pushing their use. There are alternatives out there. Single-use plastic is not always the solution. It’s up to all of us to turn the tide on plastic.