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Plastic waste - capitalism's Frankenstein monster
Only socialist planning on an international scale can protect the environment
Pete Dickenson, Tower Hamlets Socialist Party
Plastic waste is now penetrating every corner of the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and including the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth.
Pollution caused by discarded plastic has become a major environmental threat. Apart from causing a major littering problem, plastic debris is entering all levels of the ocean food chain, and can end up in the seafood we eat, where the long-term health effects are unknown.
Big pieces of plastic are choking and entangling seabirds and minute pieces are clogging the stomachs of marine creatures who mistake it for food, from plankton to whales.
Globally, annual plastics production has risen from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 380 million tonnes in 2015, with 12.7 million tonnes of this ending up in the oceans. The increase has been driven by plastic items that are used once only, such as for food packaging or disposable water bottles. In the UK alone, the volume of such single-use plastics discarded each year would fill the Royal Albert Hall 1,000 times over.
Major culprits are the supermarkets, who use 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year. To counter the criticism, Morrisons has declared that it will switch over to paper-based packaging. This type of packaging can have the advantage of being bio-degradable if it is manufactured in the right way, which will break down quickly and be reabsorbed into the earth, in contrast to plastic that will continue to pollute for hundreds of years.
But there are problems with this, because paper packaging requires more energy to manufacture than plastic and therefore will generate more greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Also, because it is made from timber, its use could accelerate the destruction of the world's forests that absorb the carbon dioxide which is the main greenhouse gas threat, and so compound the problem.
This highlights the danger of looking at an environmental problem from one side only. Consideration of the hazards of plastic and paper use have to include their impact on global warming. The greenhouse gas emissions resulting from making four plastic bottles are the same as travelling one mile in a medium sized petrol car (Bright Blue website). World plastic production is projected to rise to 34 billion tonnes by 2050, nearly 100 times the present level, by which time it will account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
This figure could be even higher if financial pressures from austerity lead to plastic being converted into jet fuel, which is technically possible and more profitable than recycling, but will ratchet up greenhouse gas output even more.
The danger of this happening is real, because the drive to recycle plastic, which can reduce the scale of the problem, is under huge pressure from government cuts. And as mentioned already, paper production will generate even more greenhouse gases if it takes over from plastic as the main method of packaging, if it is not done carbon free.
In theory, recycling existing plastic, so that it is used over and over again, rather than being dumped in landfill or tipped into the oceans, could reduce the impact on the environment but not solve it, because recycling itself requires large amounts of energy and therefore can drive global warming.
Also, there is a limit to what can be recycled. Current estimates are that a maximum of 56% is recyclable. Despite the recycling mantra heard all the time from establishment politicians looking for green credibility, the reality is that only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled. This is because it is more profitable to dump plastic waste than to recycle it. Governments, particularly in the age of austerity, are not prepared to meet the bill and so are looking for a cheap way out.
A recent article in the Mirror exposed the racket that is currently going on. Because it is much cheaper, Britain like most other industrialised countries exports nearly all of its plastic waste to poorer countries 'for recycling'.
Until recently China was the main recipient, but in 2017 refused to take any more because processing the material was proving to be more difficult than expected, ie more expensive. As a result, other poorer countries like Bangladesh along with Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, are now taking Britain's waste plastic.
In the first four months of this year plastic waste exports to Vietnam for example, increased by 51%.
A Mirror reporter went to Bangladesh and found that most of the plastic was being tipped into rivers or put in landfill by super-exploited child labourers. As a result, Bangladesh as well as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia are now in the top ten countries contributing to ocean plastic waste, but nearly all of this pollution originates in industrialised countries like Britain.
In December last year, Michael Gove the environment secretary announced that we had to 'stop offshoring our dirt', but his department later confirmed that that were no plans to stop sending plastic scrap abroad.
Urgent action is needed to reverse the projected explosion in plastic waste, but the response of the government and Theresa May was to launch a 25-year programme to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, that will include abolishing plastic straws and introducing plastic-free aisles in supermarkets.
May made the proviso though that only those measures that were economically practical would be implemented. Pointing out that it was already three years behind schedule, Labour's environment spokesperson, Sue Hayman, correctly called this a 'cynical attempt to rebrand the Tory image'.
What needs to be done is to cut down plastic use as far as possible and recycle what remains. The demand for single use plastic water bottles can be reduced by providing hygienic drinking fountains and refill points for reusable bottles. For sit-down customers, cafes should use reusable cups.
These measures would cut down the use of disposable plastic cups and bottles significantly. What remains will have to be recycled. At the moment, 16 million single-use plastic bottles are not recycled, but a deposit scheme on bottles has been shown to increase collection rates by 90%.
Plastic food wrapping is largely single use and often cannot be recycled. This needs to be replaced with paper-based packaging where it is not possible to eliminate packaging altogether. (Packaging can prolong the life of perishable food products, so removing it could lead to greater waste, so the scope for doing this will be limited.)
But, since manufacturing paper packaging exacerbates global warming by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, it must be generated carbon free, and the timber that is used as its source material must be guaranteed to be replenished, in order not to solve one problem and replace it with something worse.
These measures to remove the menace of plastic pollution are simple and, compared to the cost of tackling global warming, not expensive. But there is no sign of even these limited reforms being addressed in a serious or urgent way. We are just left with Theresa May's 25-year programme to eliminate plastic straws and introduce plastic-free checkouts in supermarkets.
Recycling has become a sham, with the majority of the UK's waste now ending up in landfill in poor countries or dumped in the oceans. Even for cheap but effective measures like introducing a deposit scheme for plastic bottles there is no sign of government action.
The reason for this deadlock is not just due to the financial pressures of austerity, it goes deeper than this. It is because tackling environmental threats is always near the bottom of the priorities of any capitalist government, because taking effective measures in this area threatens profits, the competition for which is at the heart of the market system.
For example, even before the Great Recession and financial crisis of 2008 and the start of the present era of austerity, all governments had refused to take any meaningful action to address the mortal threat of runaway climate change for more than 15 years.
Even if the Tory government did eventually end austerity, the main beneficiaries would be its friends in big business, not the environment.
May has already signalled this by saying that only measures that are 'economically practical' would be considered. Michael Gove is currently baulking at the cost of introducing a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, so what chance is there of serious action on the main measures to cut plastic pollution, never mind global warming?
It is welcome that Jeremy Corbyn has put democratic public ownership back on the political agenda and by linking this to achieving environmental objectives, seriously addressed the threats facing us. This is a refreshing contrast to the cynical green phrase-mongering that the Tories have been guilty of since Cameron posed with his huskies in the Arctic.
But a future Corbyn government will face an onslaught from the capitalists and their co-thinkers in the right wing of the Labour Party, including huge pressure to drop any radical plans on the environment.
There is a warning in the attitude of Gove in resisting making even tiny concessions on the question of a deposit scheme for plastic bottles. The bosses he represents do not want to give an inch where their profits are concerned. Even the very limited piecemeal programme Labour has put forward will be bitterly fought, but to have any chance of being effective on the environment a radical approach is essential.
The only meaningful way to tackle environmental threats is to replace the capitalist dog-eat-dog system, where competition for profit between the main imperialist powers prevents any meaningful cooperation, and to replace it with a democratically run, publicly owned economy.
In such a society for the first time it will be possible to plan for the harmonious development of the economy alongside taking the serious measures that are needed to address the range of environmental threats facing us.
Planning for the Planet: How Socialism Could Save the Environment
- by the author of this article, Pete Dickenson £10 plus p&p
- Available from Left Books, PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD, 020 8988 8789
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