The Coming Silent Seasons?
Part Three: Visible and Invisible Plastics
Turning the Tide on Plastics
By Lucy Siegle
Trapeze Books, £8.99
Review by Tim Barton

Since the 1950s consumer boom plastics have encased and comprised more and more and more of our goods. But, to paraphrase the band Aqua, ‘life in plastic, it’s not so fantastic’.

A flexible and malleable material like no other, plastics have in many ways been a huge boon to manufacturing, and have made domestic life, too, more convenient. But over the decades more and more issues have emerged. As in my previous pieces, industry has known and covered-up much of this over the decades, and still doesn’t take responsibility for much of it – the most obvious hiving off of responsibility is in pestering us to separate our trash while they do little to use less at the manufacturing end, but some of the least obvious methods are even more problematic.

An irony: at least in the south-east, most of our carefully separated plastic recycling goes… straight to incinerators. Sold as ‘waste to energy’ plants, and therefore deliberately mislabelled ‘recycling’, this helps incinerator companies reduce their costs by keeping a hi-calorific fuel pumped into their furnaces. And produces ‘invisible’ gasses chock full of organochlorines – as noted before, amongst the most dangerous chemicals on earth. The effects of these pollutants are itemised in my last ‘Silent Seasons’ piece, suffice to say they are almost entirely man-made and are ubiquitous throughout the global environment, unlike the plastics we see on television news these days.

On which note… when did you first see plastics choking birds? Think back, it was not as recently as the ‘big story’ news reports, not by a long chalk. Pictures of cormorants, swans, and turtles choked or trapped by the plastic webs used to connect tins of lager, or strangled by nylon rope on the beach, go back decades. We’ve known that animals, especially birds and fish, ingest plastics in large quantities for a while too. When did you first hear about the Pacific Gyre? Some of you may still not have, but it’s been more prominent in the mainstream media recently: interestingly, mostly since a few ‘possible fixes’ have been mooted – yet (except for oceanographers and sailors, who first became aware in the 1980s) we became aware of it, slowly, from around the Millennium. This is essentially two large ‘Sargasso Seas’ of plastic in the central east and west North Pacific – 1.6 million square kilometres are taken up, and they drop to variable, essentially unknown, depths. Not the only trash vortexes, but the biggest, and made from the domestic trash and manufacturing waste of Japan and China – however, we used so much plastic junk as ballast in freight tankers that a large amount of this ‘Chinese’ waste is in fact European in origin: it’s where little Johnny’s cast-off McDonald’s toys, Lego, and Playmobil goes to die, and our Tupperware, takeaway cartons, along with the masses’ unnecessarily thin plastic layered over all our supermarket foods, from veg, fruit, cakes, bread, to bog roll, plus all those plastic bottles that piled end to end might just reach Mars.  

Now these are big stories, presented out of that historical context – stories we sorely need to heed. And more and more we are heeding them, though mostly at the consumer end of the process – industry doesn’t want its profits hit, so is behind the curb, yet their potential commitment to change could be far more important than our little bit. As is so often the case, it is inspired individuals that make the difference. Here in Hastings, for example, Trinity Wholefoods are about to open ‘Trinity Refills’ at the top of Robertson Steps; we already have the plastic free ‘Wonderfill’ in Kings Road, St Leonards; the council have installed plastic waste bins on the beach – and they are not alone in attempting small-scale remediation locally.

Lucy Siegle’s rather nice new book, Turning the Tide on Plastics (subtitled How Humanity (And You) Can Make Our Globe Clean Again) is one of a few new publications seeking to help us help ourselves. The first half is an approachable overview of the roots of the crisis. The second gives good advice on how YOU & I can help reduce OUR ‘Plastics Footprint’ – which is important, of course. She riffs off of the Three Rs, creating a new strategy based on an 8R plan: record; reduce; replace; refuse; reuse; refill; rethink; recycle. And if we all do it this will send a significant message to the corporate greed mongers – for that is where the battle will be fought and won, or lost! We need manufacturers, supermarkets, and governments to get on board, urgently. REPLACE is mostly in their hands. Supermarkets and shops can work toward a REFILL culture, as Trinity are.

A RETHINK is required at the level of the UN and WHO, but that’s still not really happening – yet. In good news, China and other plastics manufacturing hubs banned most phthalates (in 2014 the US CDC’s Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel gave hard-hitting recommendations too). Phthalates are a family of chemicals linked to – you guessed it – asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioural issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues. They are what make plastics, erm, plastic. If you wondered why plastic boxes are more brittle than before, removing these chemicals is why. Tip of the iceberg, but hey, there’s hope.

Turning the Tide on Plastics is available from Bookbusters

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