Many scientists today agree we are living through a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. It is an age defined by human activity, characterised by a reduction in biodiversity, an increase in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the use of nuclear weapons, the impact of industrial processes and changes to the Earth’s surface as a result of mining, construction and erosion. One of the most disastrous features of this activity is the massive and increasing production of plastic, a material once synonymous with progress and innovation but which is now threatening the viability of the planet on which we all depend.
A glimpse at the world’s oceans reveals the dimensions of the problem. A 2017 study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that by 2050, Earth’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Already, there are huge, submerged, moving concentrations of waste in every one of the planet’s oceans, known as garbage patches. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which lies between Japan and California, for example, is twice the size of Texas and continually growing. It acts like a vortex, pulling ever more rubbish into its centre.
Plastic does not readily biodegrade. The best the oceans can do is break plastics down into microplastics, and microplastics into smaller nanoplastics. These invisible particles remain in the water, creating the effect of a permanent petrochemical spill. They are ingested by marine life and birds. They enter the food chain, embedding themselves in flesh, and are increasingly being consumed by humans.
Plastic also pollutes land and the air. A huge amount of plastic waste ends up in landfill, but a paper from Water Research has demonstrated that “landfill isn’t the final sink of plastics, but a potential source of microplastics”. Plastics are ground down in landfill, and these smaller microplastic particles can be carried by the wind and breathed in by people and animals.
Little is known about how microplastics interact with human health. What we do know is that we are all ingesting nearly 2,000 particles—or, a credit card’s worth—of plastic each week.
Yet despite the known damaging effects of this material, worldwide plastic production is growing. Much of the responsibility for this lies with just a handful of powerful corporations.
Drinks companies are among the worst offenders. It was revealed in 2019 that Coca-Cola alone produces about 108 billion plastic bottles, or 3 million tonnes of plastic, every year. This waste is entirely unnecessary. Drinks like Coke used to be sold in reusable glass bottles, with customers receiving a small refund for returning bottles. But this arrangement, considered inefficient by the beverage giants, was overturned in the 1950s. Cheap, disposable plastic containers became key to ensuring market dominance over rivals.
Beyond Coke and Pepsi, unnecessary plastic packaging of consumer items has become ubiquitous. Browse the shelves of any department store or supermarket, and you will find thousands of new plastics, ready to start their long lives polluting the world’s ecosystems. It could be considered psychopathic, if it wasn’t also good for business.
“Packaging is important to capitalism”, Chris Williams argues in Ecology and Socialism. “It is part of convincing us that we have choices in the products we buy, as if each different brand were not in many cases identical aside from the packaging and the brand loyalty that packaging seeks to secure.”
The economy is organised through constant, unplanned competition between firms producing similar commodities. Excessive packaging is the result. As Williams explains, “Corporations resist reductions in packaging even when it might save them money (packaging costs can often be greater than the cost of the item itself)—because packaging persuades consumers to buy their product rather than someone else’s”. At the end of the day, the extra cost of packaging is passed on to those who buy the products. We pay: first through higher prices placed on packaged items, then through the degradation of the Earth systems upon which our lives depend.
Invested in the predominance of plastic material in capitalist production are some of the most powerful entities on the planet, the fossil fuel giants. Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Sinopec, and other oil and gas superpowers have an interest in plastic coating as many products as possible. Inside giant petrochemical hubs, petroleum is manufactured into plastic material, providing the world’s companies a relatively cheap, versatile and light material used for everything from engine parts to toys. This strengthens demand for the oil drillers to keep drilling, from the Canadian taiga to the Arabian desert.
Facing volatility in the oil sector, energy companies are pivoting towards accelerated plastic production as a source of future stability. The International Energy Agency’s 2018 report The Future of Petrochemicals heralded the growing strategic importance of plastic. The agency’s modelling suggested that “oil demand related to plastic consumption” will overtake “that for road passenger transport by 2050”.
More immediately, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to plunging oil profits. One method for weathering the storm has been a race to make more plastic. This has created new challenges for plastic makers: an emergent glut of plastics in major markets, and a shortage of places to dump plastic waste. China’s 2018 ban on plastic waste imports is still a source of pain for many Western capitalists.
But with crisis comes opportunity. A recent New York Times piece revealed the plastic producers’ plan to solve their problems: “flood Africa with plastic”. The American Chemistry Council, representing some of the largest fossil fuel and chemical corporations, has been lobbying to influence the renegotiation of the US-Kenya trade agreement. In return for Kenya’s right to export goods to the US duty free, Big Oil is demanding that Kenya reverse its strict ban on plastic goods (such as bags) to create new markets for plastic. Additionally, Kenya is expected to remain open to the import of US plastic waste, turning itself into one of the world’s plastic dumps. An American Chemistry Council representative explained their continent-wide ambitions to the US government: “We anticipate that Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying US-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa through this trade agreement”.
The rise of plastic over the last 70 years has been accompanied by one of the biggest lies of modern history, the lie of plastic recycling. When Coca-Cola introduced plastic bottles, it launched a propaganda campaign aimed at shifting responsibility for re-use from the company to individuals. Such recycling campaigns pioneered corporate greenwashing.
Keep America Beautiful, an anti-littering organisation funded by Coke and other producers of plastic containers, exemplified this with its famous 1970 TV commercial in which a Native American man sheds a tear as he watches trash being thrown out of car windows. “People start pollution, people can stop it”, says the narrator. In one fell swoop, responsibility for plastic pollution moves from the corporations producing vast quantities of it to the careless masses, too lazy to pick up after themselves. Recycling, we were told then, was the solution. Many people wanting to do right by the environment heard and heeded this unsubtle message. Still today, millions carefully separate their recyclables, including plastics, from the rest of their rubbish in order to do their bit for the planet.
But recycling does more to promote the continued production of plastic than it does to mitigate its harmful environmental effects. Plastic is not suitable for recycling. Unlike other recyclable materials, the quality of plastic degrades in reprocessing. It is rarely recycled twice. Laura Sullivan, writing for National Public Radio in the US, has documented industry officials’ knowledge, as early as the 1970s, that recycling plastic “was unlikely to happen on a broad scale”.
The physical difficulties involved in recycling plastic are only part of the scandal. Most plastic is not recycled even once. The same plastic makers who have poured millions into pro-recycling advertisements show little to no interest in purchasing recycled plastic. The reason? A cold, economic fact. In Sullivan’s words, “Making new plastic out of oil is cheaper and easier than making it out of plastic trash”. It is simply too expensive to collect it, sort it, melt it and redesign it. In an economy based on maximising profit margins, investing in a real recycling operation would offer miserable returns, so it doesn’t happen.
For anyone who has spent their life putting plastics in recycling bins, it is chilling to learn what becomes of it. Science Advances published an important study in 2017, estimating the scale of the lie. Between 1950 and 2015, 6.3 trillion kilograms of plastic waste has been produced. Of this waste, only 9 percent has ever been recycled. The bulk, 79 percent or 4.98 trillion kilograms, has been buried in landfill or otherwise found its way into natural environments, such as the oceans. The other 12 percent has been burnt.
Incineration is the relatively easy alternative to both reprocessing and burial. In the incinerators, plastic is converted into pollutants such as dioxins and greenhouse gases. This option will become more appealing to authorities as their dumping grounds overflow.
Governments are under considerable pressure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But plastic production continues apace. The World Economic Forum estimates that plastic production will triple by 2050. Those currently profiting from this destructive substance won’t change their ways through polite persuasion. They have to be fought, and their system brought down, before it’s too late.