Opinion: Only radical measures of change will break plastic’s toxic grip

By Sian Sutherland, Co-Founder, A Plastic Planet & Plastic Health Council | April 22, 2024

It is all too tempting to turn a blind eye to plastic’s catastrophic impact on our planet and people.  The sheer quantities of the stuff we buy, use and waste have somehow become normalized. Our ‘circular economy’ for plastic is in fact an Ouroboros – a serpent eating its own tail. Plastic production and rampant single-use consumerism fuel and feed each other, rewarding the few and destroying the natural environments of billions. With more than half of the world’s plastic being created since the early 2000s, the planet is awash with plastic, from packaging to textiles, buildings to everyday products, it has infiltrated virtually every aspect of modern life. Like all toxic addictions, we can barely imagine life without it whilst knowing it is a material we must either radically change or relegate to last century.

Our disposable culture has increased tenfold over the past century, with levels set to increase again by 70 percent by 2050. And of course it is mirrored by a threefold increase in plastic production. In plain sight, the fossil fuel and petrochemicals industries have fuelled and capitalized on our thirst to convenience and an oversupply of use-once stuff.  Paramount is the protection of their profits regardless of impact to the health of our planet and all life upon it. Plastic is their Plan B, a soft landing as we switch to renewables for energy, ensuring continued dominant power.

What will it take to wake us up from our dependency? What will catalyse us to reimagine a future without toxic degenerative materials, to create the materials of the 21st century that work with Nature’s nutrient cycle where there simply is no waste.  The last decade has shown us that proof of the devasting impact to our environment is not stimulus enough.  Instead, as ever, it will be the impact on our own health, on our children, that will be the Achilles heel that will finally push us to action.

The recent PlastChem report uncovered over 16,000 chemicals known to be present in plastic, a third more than previously identified. With one in four of these chemicals classified as of concern, the toxic undercurrents of the plastic crisis run deeper than we dared to imagine. Endocrine disrupting chemicals found in plastics have been linked to infertility, cancer, cognitive disorders and autoimmune diseases. With research predicting that most couples will have to use assisted reproduction by 2045, the future before us is bleak.

Some may be led to believe the psyche of the global population is conditioned to accept plastic as an unavoidable evil but the public is slowly but surely awaking to the stark facts we are presented with.  And will be expecting governments to create policies that protect us.

Taking responsibility for our waste does not equate to relying on recycling. The illusion of recycling as a cure-all for our plastic problem has been perpetuated by producers for over 50 years, concealing the truth that it is not a viable waste management solution and peddling a convenient placebo pill. In reality, the process creates toxic new chemical compounds which supercharge the human health impact. We must go back to the very beginning, rethink and design our way out of this problem.

And the good news is that it is already happening. Check out Natural Fiber Welding (nfw.earth) who are pioneering an entirely new systemic approach that proves we can take, make and never waste again. Inspired by nature, they have created circular nutrient solutions for products including footwear, apparel, bags and accessories, furniture, car interiors and more. Their mantra of ‘start clean, stay clean and end well’ sets a high bar all materials should reach for.

We should also be focusing on returnable systems, eradicating single-use wherever possible. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation highlights that a standardised returnable packaging model can support economic, operational and environmental concerns. This model, unlike recycling, is not dependent on complex energy intensive. Adopting ‘packaging as a service’ with standardised packaging across competitive brands and retailers makes carbon and EPR sense too. Reposit is already demonstrating this in M&S stores across the UK with more in the pipeline.

However, the burden of responsibility cannot rest solely on the shoulders of businesses and consumers. Whilst plastic is legal, it will still populate our shelves. Companies find themselves treading water, awaiting clear guidance and policy from government. Only recently, in the UK, we have witnessed plastic cutlery and polystyrene takeaway boxes disappear, mirroring similar trends in Europe, which will soon consign ketchup sachets to history. But we must go further than piecemeal bans. Ultimately, it is that four letter word, risk, that will force the corporations of the world to change. Industry need absolute certainty in order to initiate the kind of seismic supply chain shifts that are needed and only legislation and fiscal policy will give business this certainty.  It is time for policymakers of the world to be bold.

With Earth Day marking the eve of the fourth round of negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty, we stand at a crossroads. Legislators and regulators must advocate for systemic changes to reroute the course we are on and combat the short-sighted greed of the plastics industry. To imagine a post-plastic world, abundant with innovation, where true regenerative circularity is achieved, delegates must resist the lobbyists and cap plastic production. This month has witnessed an extraordinary event in the European Court of Human Rights with 2000 Swiss women succeeding in their case against their government’s lack of action to protect them from climate change. This is a major crack in the dam. Governments can now be found negligent and the most tangible, undeniable lack of accountability will be their failure to protect us from plastic.

Learn more about A Plastic Planet

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Champions.

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