Plastic waste is now penetrating every corner of the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and including the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth.
Pollution caused by discarded plastic has become a major environmental threat. Apart from causing a major littering problem, plastic debris is entering all levels of the ocean food chain, and can end up in the seafood we eat, where the long-term health effects are unknown.
Big pieces of plastic are choking and entangling seabirds and minute pieces are clogging the stomachs of marine creatures who mistake it for food, from plankton to whales.
Globally, annual plastics production has risen from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 380 million tonnes in 2015, with 12.7 million tonnes of this ending up in the oceans. The increase has been driven by plastic items that are used once only, such as for food packaging or disposable water bottles.
Major culprits are the supermarkets, who use 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year. To counter the criticism, some supermarkets around the world have said they will switch over to paper-based packaging. This type of packaging can have the advantage of being bio-degradable if it is manufactured in the right way, which will break down quickly and be reabsorbed into the earth, in contrast to plastic that will continue to pollute for hundreds of years.
But there are problems with this, because paper packaging requires more energy to manufacture than plastic and therefore will generate more greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Also, because it is made from timber, its use could accelerate the destruction of the world’s forests that absorb the carbon dioxide which is the main greenhouse gas threat, and so compound the problem.
This highlights the danger of looking at an environmental problem from one side only. Consideration of the hazards of plastic and paper use have to include their impact on global warming. The greenhouse gas emissions resulting from making four plastic bottles are the same as travelling one mile in a medium-sized petrol car (Bright Blue website). World plastic production is projected to rise to 34 billion tonnes by 2050, nearly 100 times the present level, by which time it will account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
This figure could be even higher if financial pressures from austerity lead to plastic being converted into jet fuel, which is technically possible and more profitable than recycling, but will ratchet up greenhouse gas output even more.
The danger of this happening is real, because the drive to recycle plastic, which can reduce the scale of the problem, is under huge pressure from government cuts. And as mentioned already, paper production will generate even more greenhouse gases if it takes over from plastic as the main method of packaging, if it is not done carbon free.
In theory, recycling existing plastic, so that it is used over and over again, rather than being dumped in landfill or tipped into the oceans, could reduce the impact on the environment but not solve it, because recycling itself requires large amounts of energy and therefore can drive global warming.
Also, there is a limit to what can be recycled. Current estimates are that a maximum of 56% is recyclable. Despite the recycling mantra heard all the time from establishment politicians looking for green credibility, the reality is that only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled. This is because it is more profitable to dump plastic waste than to recycle it. Governments, particularly in the age of austerity, are not prepared to meet the bill and so are looking for a cheap way out.
Most industrialised countries export nearly all of their plastic waste to poorer countries ‘for recycling’. Until recently China was the main recipient, but in 2017 refused to take any more because processing the material was proving to be more difficult than expected, i.e. more expensive. As a result, other poorer countries like Bangladesh along with Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, are now taking the plastic waste.
In the first four months of this year plastic waste exports to Vietnam, for example, increased by 51%.
A reporter went to Bangladesh and found that most of the plastic was being tipped into rivers or put in landfill by super-exploited child labourers. As a result, Bangladesh as well as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia are now in the top ten countries contributing to ocean plastic waste, but nearly all of this pollution originates in industrialised countries.
Urgent action is needed to reverse the projected explosion in plastic waste, but the response of most governments has been lacklustre.
What needs to be done is to cut down plastic use as far as possible and recycle what remains. The demand for single use plastic water bottles can be reduced by providing hygienic drinking fountains and refill points for reusable bottles. For sit-down customers, cafes should use reusable cups.
These measures would cut down the use of disposable plastic cups and bottles significantly. What remains will have to be recycled. At the moment, 16 million single-use plastic bottles are not recycled, but a deposit scheme on bottles has been shown to increase collection rates by 90%.
Plastic food wrapping is largely single use and often cannot be recycled. This needs to be replaced with paper-based packaging where it is not possible to eliminate packaging altogether. (Packaging can prolong the life of perishable food products, so removing it could lead to greater waste, so the scope for doing this will be limited.)
But, since manufacturing paper packaging exacerbates global warming by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, it must be generated carbon free, and the timber that is used as its source material must be guaranteed to be replenished, in order not to solve one problem and replace it with something worse.
These measures to remove the menace of plastic pollution are simple and, compared to the cost of tackling global warming, not expensive. But there is no sign of even these limited reforms being addressed in a serious or urgent way.
Recycling has become a sham, with the majority of the industrialised world’s waste now ending up in landfill in poor countries or dumped in the oceans. Even for cheap but effective measures like introducing a deposit scheme for plastic bottles there are few signs of government action.
The reason for this deadlock is not just due to the financial pressures of austerity, it goes deeper than this. It is because tackling environmental threats is always near the bottom of the priorities of any capitalist government, because taking effective measures in this area threatens profits, the competition for which is at the heart of the market system.
For example, even before the Great Recession and financial crisis of 2008 and the start of the present era of austerity, all governments had refused to take any meaningful action to address the mortal threat of runaway climate change for more than 15 years.
In Britain, May has already signalled this by saying that only measures that are ‘economically practical’ would be considered. Michael Gove is currently baulking at the cost of introducing a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, so what chance is there of serious action on the main measures to cut plastic pollution, never mind global warming?
It is welcome that the Labour leader in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, has put democratic public ownership back on the political agenda and by linking this to achieving environmental objectives, seriously addressed the threats facing us.
But a future Corbyn government will face an onslaught from the capitalists and their co-thinkers in the right wing of the Labour Party, including huge pressure to drop any radical plans on the environment.
Even the very limited piecemeal programme Labour has put forward will be bitterly fought, but to have any chance of being effective on the environment a radical approach is essential.
The only meaningful way to tackle environmental threats is to replace the capitalist dog-eat-dog system, where competition for profit between the main imperialist powers prevents any meaningful cooperation, and to replace it with a democratically run, publicly owned economy.
In such a society for the first time it will be possible to plan for the harmonious development of the economy alongside taking the serious measures that are needed to address the range of environmental threats facing us.
By Pete Dickenson
Plastic bag ban
Single-use, lightweight plastic shopping bags are being phased out in most Australian states.
Feeling pressure to act, the supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles have announced plans to ban all single-use plastic bags from their stores.
It’s been estimated that between Coles and Woolworths they have been handing out more than six billion single-use bags per year! Inevitably, many of these bags find their way into landfill or oceans.
While the lack of free bags in stores is often an inconvenience, and forces people to buy more expensive reusable bags, many shoppers support the ban as they want something to be done to reduce waste.
Unfortunately, the promotion of reusable bags by the supermarket chains is nothing more than an attempt to greenwash the problem. Academics point out that reusable bags need to be used more than 100 times for there to be any real environmental benefit. Often the reusable bags don’t last this long.
Making matters worse, the supermarkets are set to profit handsomely from the new arrangements. It has been reported that the supermarkets will save more than $170 million a year by not handing out free single-use bags. They are set to make tens of millions a year more by selling other types of reusable bags.
While efforts should be made to reduce plastic bag use, the costs should be borne by the supermarket giants rather than the customers. They are the ones making billions in profit. For example, they could provide free reusable boxes and bags in addition to free home delivery services.
The bigger issue however is that plastic bags make up just a portion of all plastic waste. The vast bulk of goods we buy have many layers of unnecessary plastic packaging. In many cases the packaging is there only for marketing purposes.
Manufacturers should be forced to adhere to strict environmental standards to reduce waste and emissions. If the profit motive was removed from the production process immense amounts of waste could be eliminated while keeping prices low.
This type of approach would have a much bigger impact than what individuals could contribute alone.
By Socialist Party reporters