Veganism must learn from the plastic revolution

'Plastic Ocean': Installation of wasted materials into art by Tan Zi Xi (Singapore) at sam @ 8Q during the imaginarium - Over the Ocean, Under the Sea exhibition. Photo: Choo Yut Shing via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).

Plastic Ocean: Installation of wasted materials by Tan Zi Xi

Plastics are the green topic du jour. LOUISE DAVIES asks what the vegan movement can learn from plastic-free campaigners

We need to look at how plastic became front page news. What we’ve seen over the past few months is the convergence of four key drivers, which together have created an unstoppable tipping point. 

We need to stop using animal products for similar reasons as cutting our plastic use.

Animal agriculture is responsible for huge amounts of greenhouse gases, is using valuable land and water resources and is the biggest culprit for biodiversity destruction on the planet.

We have the evidence for all of this, so how can the vegan movement follow the burgeoning success of the anti-plastics movement?  

Cloud Cuckoo

Here at The Vegan Society, we’re sometimes accused of living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. We are working to build a world free of animal exploitation, and there are plenty of people who say it will never happen - that society will never accept such a drastic change.

In recent months, however, we’ve seen something quite incredible happening with a product that’s part of everyone’s daily life.

Something that has gone from being used with carefree abandon to being almost sinful. That something is plastic. So what can we in the vegan movement learn from the way the public’s attitude to plastic has changed?

From the outset, I should say that some plastics are great – from a vegan perspective they help to avoid the use of animal products like ivory or shellac, and some plastics are important in creating safe and sterile environments for foods and medical products.

Recycling systems

But in the mid-1970s the epitome of bad plastic was created, the single-use PET bottle. These were mostly used for fizzy drinks or water and replaced a refillable glass bottle.

These single use plastics are the crux of the environmental problem that we’re now all aware of. A million of these bottles are bought around the world every minute and most end up in landfill or the sea. 

It was back in the 1980s when environmentalists pointed out the problem of plastics. The industry responded by adding a recycling logo to their products and some recycling systems were implemented, but little else changed. In the UK we consume over 3 million tonnes of plastic each year, and around half of that is produced here.  

We need to look at how plastic became front page news. What we’ve seen over the past few months is the convergence of four key drivers, which together have created an unstoppable tipping point. 

For the last 40 or so years, we’ve known that plastics (particularly single use) were a problem but very little was done about it. Until now.  

Rising use

The rise in plastic use was driven by a combination of public spending, unrelenting lobbying, and sophisticated public relations. How does that compare with the increase in consumption of animal products around the same period? 

As people around the world have become wealthier the consumption of meat and dairy has increased dramatically. 

In the mid-1960s we were consuming 24kg of meat and 64kg of dairy globally per capita per year. This has now increased to 41kg of meat and 83kg of dairy. 

As well as people having more money to spend on animal products, we have the added incentive that prices are reducing too. Many of us will recall stories from parents or grandparents who talked about a chicken being a once a week treat on a Sunday - but when you get a whole chicken for £3 from the supermarket, it’s no surprise that our diets are changing.

We need to look at how plastic became front page news. What we’ve seen over the past few months is the convergence of four key drivers, which together have created an unstoppable tipping point.  

Public awareness

The first of these is a genuine grassroots awareness of the subject. Campaigners have been working on the issue for years – the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage have done some great work, raising awareness at various levels in a steady and committed way. Some of this work led to the plastic bag tax and has encouraged groups on a local level to campaign for less plastic in their area. 

This in turn led to the second big driver – the media. Broader public awareness was driven primarily by the TV phenomenon that was Blue Planet II.

It’s rare these days for TV shows to create genuine 'water-cooler moments', but Blue Planet was a unique piece of programming. Iconic images, combined with the gravitas and trust which the British public has in David Attenborough and the BBC’s natural history unit, combined to make this the show everyone was talking about.  

We are now beginning to see the third engine of change emerging – technological innovations. Recycling projects and alternative products which have struggled to get funding before are now seen as potential game-changers. Shop shelves are full of eco coffee cups and soon there will be many alternatives to offer consumers, and those consumers are hungry for change.  

Finally, with every carrot there comes a stick, and it didn’t take long for the furore around plastic to reach the halls of government. Suddenly there were ambitious targets to eradicate avoidable plastic waste altogether by 2042, and the promise of new taxes and levies if retailers failed to fall into line.

In no time at all, what had previously been a niche concern had become an all-out “War on Plastics.” 

Plastics revolution

So, the steps we need to focus on as vegans are building grassroots understanding, creating a media awareness, offering consumers alternatives, and lobbying government to do their part. 

One take-away from the plastics revolution is that all the pieces need to fit together at the same time. If it wasn’t for the hard work of environmental NGOs in bringing the plastics issue to the fore in the first instance, the media, and then the government, may not have acted.

Ultimately, we know that the world is gradually getting better. By using the tools of successful campaigns from the past and present, we as vegans can help propel the world towards a vegan future.

A world without animal suffering, a better environment, and improved public health. We may look back on the start of the 21st century as the time when things really started to change – join us and help to make it happen.

This Author

Louise Davies is head of campaigns, policy and research at The Vegan Society. If you would like to learn more about veganism, sign up to the seven-day challenge here.

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