Tackling plastic pollution

| 11th March 2019
Making a serious difference to plastic pollution is only possible by tackling over-consumption.

Plastic pollution is a symptom of modern throwaway culture and like with all symptoms – it’s really the underlying problem of consumption that needs to be tackled.

Consciousness about plastic waste grown immeasurably in recent years – but as with fighting climate change, we’re not going to solve the problem with consumer driven solutions.

Hardly a day goes by without a major corporate flexing its ‘eco’ credentials as being green or at least appearing to be is big business. Just this week a tweet from SC Johnson CEO H Fisk Johnson was promoted into my feed boldly referencing the threat posed by plastic and of course the wonderful things his company is doing:

“Plastic pollution is destroying the health of the ocean. Business, governments and civil society have to come together and take action. I’m proud of what @SCJohnson teams are doing and hope other companies will join us.”

Concerted action

Now, it’s hard to argue with at least the main thrust of this statement. We do need concerted action but as with most things, the devil truly is in the detail. Is SC Johnson, a company that packages vast numbers of products in plastic bottles truly going to be at the vanguard of tackling plastic pollution? Somehow, I think not.

George Monbiot has rightly argued that we must challenge the corporations to seek to find ‘greener’ ways to maintain the status quo.

Calls have been made for companies such as Starbucks and Costa to switch to corn starch plastic for their cups with little consideration given to the space that this would use – which could be cultivating food. Or otherwise would be bringing about fresh habitat destruction.

Plastic pollution is a symptom of modern throwaway culture and like with all symptoms – it’s really the underlying problem of consumption that needs to be tackled.

Popular groundswell

While I’m all for a beach clean or consumers becoming more conscious about using less plastic, you can’t address a fundamentally structural problems with individualised solutions or in this case market solutions.

David Attenborough’s beautiful Blue Planet II series is often held up as driving force behind the current consciousness around plastic pollution.

It’s true that it did raise the issue but the narrative that it has created is also part of the problem. In many ways, I’m a big fan of Attenborough but his arguments often ignore the fundamentally systemic of environmental issues such as plastic pollution.

Market based solutions will not bring about the reduction in consumption that we need to see to make serious inroads into this problem. Business has to play a role, but it shouldn’t be leading the conversation. That must come from our movements a popular groundswell of pressure.

Structural causes

Ethical consumption is big business but doing the right thing shouldn’t come down to the onus of the individual. From supermarkets selling wonky veg to Fair Trade products, brands turn doing the right thing into a consumer choice rather than it being the norm.

Personally, if it’s a choice between buying a Fair Trade product and not, it’s clear which I will go for but ethical consumption as choice can only go so far. In the long term it obfuscates and distracts from the more difficult fundamental changes being made.

Whether approaching the climate crisis, deforestation, plastic pollution or a host of other environmental issues – we can’t consider them in isolation or without focusing on their structural causes.

Environmentalists need to steer the conversation on plastic pollution away from individual action and seeking a ‘better’ form of consumerism to structural and more holistic approach.

This Author

Andrew Taylor-Dawson has been involved with the social justice and environmental movements for over a decade. He works in the NGO sector as well as writing about civil society, campaigning and progressive causes. Twitter: @Andrew_J_Taylor.

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