Plastic waste and political hypocrisy

Plastic waste in the Philippines

Ten years after plastic pollution has reached a global crisis point—brilliantly highlighted recently by David Attenborough’s stunning Blue Planet II series—Theresa May has decided that it is a problem that the Tories should take an interest in and has unveiled her 25 years plan (no less) to protect the environment, writes Alan Thornett

The hypocrisy is gut wrenching. We face a situation where there will soon be more plastic in oceans than fish, and with the majority of sea birds having plastic in their bodies, and with sea mammals choking on plastic detritus in every part of the oceans. Theresa May has no previous record of taking the slightest interest in the environment and was part of a government that cut environmental standards as a part of its austerity programme is now making a proposal – with no legal force behind it – that all avoidable plastic waste should end by 2042! In others words in 24 year’s-time!

She told the press conference at the London Wetlands Centre that ‘It’s a long-term plan’— which was the only bit of her speech that we can rely on. Jeremy Corbyn criticised the plan as too little too late saying that plastic waste and ‘the throwaway society’ needed to be tackled more quickly than May’s timetable. ‘We have to be much, much tougher. Yes, take it on. But don’t do it in 25 years – do it now.’

It is not even that she watched Blue Planet II and saw the need for such a plan—or the piles of plastic waste gathering on the beaches more accurately. In fact, her motivation was not the environment at all. It was not even the aggrandisement of Michael Gove as Minister for the environment. It was her own electoral survival after the environment (or the lack of Tory interest in it) had been identified by a Tory think tank as one of the key reasons why young voters failed to back the Tories in the last general election.

Not that it will do the Tories any good, since the problems for the planet are getting rapidly worse and their bankruptcy on the issue is clear for all to see.

The average person living in Western Europe or North America consumes 100 kilograms of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging. Asia uses 20 kilograms per person at the moment, but this will rise as economies in the region expand.

Every year, 300 million tons of plastic are manufactured in the world—with only a small proportion of this ever making its way to recycling or re-use. The rest ends up in landfill or floating around in the ocean, and as it is sometimes said, once it is there it never breaks up it only breaks down and into ever smaller and more dangerous pieces. In fact, all the plastic ever produced since production started in the 1950s still exists in the environment in the environment today—and it is increasing at an alarming rate. Micro-plastic particles resulting from the degradation of plastic items are already widely present in marine wildlife.

Today, one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed, every year, by plastic in our oceans. Nearly 50 percent of all seabird species, 22 percent of cetaceans, all sea turtle species and a growing list of fish species have plastic in or around their bodies.

We can welcome the small—too little too late—measure that she has announced in her speech such as the extension of the charge on single issue plastic bags to the smaller retailers and to consider charges on plastic lunch boxes and packaging free isles in the supermarkets. Even the possibly of a new environmental watch-dog body, though this is a bit rich considering that the previous watchdog, known as the Sustainable Development Commission, was axed by the coalition in 2010 as part of the ‘bonfire of the quangos’.

We can welcome any attempt to halt the decline of biodiversity in the face of intensive farming and land loss due to housing and development, and any new land allocated to wildlife preservation. Over 17,000 hectares of land is lost to building development each year under conditions where regulations have either been either relaxed or abolished.

By July 2019, she says, the government will designate another round of marine conservation zones designed to protect species from overfishing and other threats. The question remains as to whether these measures will ever happen and whether they will have the teeth needed even if they do. Michael Gove’s promise to plant 11 million trees sounds a lot but in fact is no more than was planted during the coalitions years.

Gove mentions waste four times in his short foreword to May’s plan, but there is no plan as to how the government will improve its recycling levels. Recycling rates stalled in England in 2012 and in 2015 fell for the first time in more than a decade. Diverting waste away from landfill and into recycling centres largely falls on the shoulders of local authorities, which have been hit by austerity budget cuts. At the same time China has announced that it is raising its standards and is therefore no longer prepared to be the dumping ground for recycled waste that it has been in recent years.

There was no mention in the plan of the 25p charge on disposable coffee cups mooted recently, of which only one in 400 is currently recycled.

The harsh reality, however, is that whilst this kind of gesture politics is played out the big picture is getting rapidly worse. Coca-Cola, according to information obtained by Greenpeace, increased its production of throwaway plastic bottles last year by well over a billion. This puts Coke’s single-use bottle production at more than 110bn bottles a year. Coca-Cola has confirmed that single-use plastic bottles made up 59% of its global packaging in 2016 compared to 58% in the 12 months before.

The Guardian reported recently on a little-known deal signed between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia last year during Trump’s visit to the country boost the global output of plastic and worsen the problem dramatically. In front of Trump and King Salman, Saudi officials posed for photos shaking hands with both the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Darren Woods—Tillerson’s successor as chief executive of ExxonMobil.

They were signing a $10bn agreement with the state-owned Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) to build the world’s largest plastics manufacturing facility in the USA on the Texas coast, that will soon start to churn out vast quantities of bottles, food packaging, polyester clothing and other products that, once discarded, will make their contribution to choking the world’s oceans, food chains, and ecosystems.

The project was lavished with more than $1bn in tax breaks by local authorities in Texas to locate the plant on farmland just north of Corpus Christi, Exxon and its Saudi partner have promised the ethane steam “cracker” facility will create thousands of new jobs. Trump called the deal a “true American success story” in a White House statement that included paragraphs copied directly from an Exxon corporate press release.

The Guardian says that the Exxon-Sabic project, which will annually produce 1.8m tonnes of ethylene, a key building block of plastics, is just one of 11 chemical, refining, lubricant and gas projects Exxon is building along the US Gulf coast. The region is being divvied up in a multi-billion-dollar push by fossil fuel companies that will fuel an anticipated 40% rise in global plastic production over the next decade.

Theresa May, who is a big fan of the Trump administration, and is relying on it for a Brexit trade deal, said the following as she launched he plan: ‘Today I can confirm that the UK will demonstrate global leadership. We must reduce the demand for plastic, reduce the number of plastics in circulation and improve our recycling rates.’

 

 

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