Plastic Wars – Another View on Single Use Plastics
Review by Chris Cooper
In May we reported on the film ‘The Story of Plastic’ (see the notes on the film here).
Since then, a new film has been released, ‘Plastic Wars’. In some respects it is a better report; shorter, slightly less pessimistic, more focused on the root cause, and readily available on YouTube
Plastic Wars looks specifically at the motivation and tactics of the petrochemical industry over the past forty years. As renewable energy sources become more available, the industry is looking to switch uses of its raw materials, oil and gas, to the production of plastics.
In the 1980’s the first public awareness of the problem of plastics waste began, and some US states threatened to ban plastic packaging. The industry’s response was:
- Advertise the virtues of plastic
- Promote the concept of recycling
1 was successful if unhelpful; 2 was a blind alley already secretly acknowledged by the industry. Sorting by chemical type was successfully prototyped in the 1990’s then abandoned, as only the plastic in plastic bottles had any commercial value, the other 90% ending up in landfill. Why this should be was not fully explained. Partly, packaging manufacturers were producing products made of multiple types of plastic which could not be separated, but one suspects that the petrochemical industry was also undercutting the price of recycled raw materials.
At that time, plastic identification symbols were put on packaging, but this was simply a public relations ploy to give people some confidence in the recycling process.
Exporting waste to the Far East for processing has only exacerbated the problem of unregulated dumping, especially since China closed the door to imports and trade switched to countries with more lax regulations. The overspill is now finding its way into the oceans in a big way.
Once again the petrochemical industry is promoting recycling while at the same time engaging in a massive plastics manufacturing investment, which makes no sense if recycling was a viable option.
What to do?
While both films point to the petrochemical industry as the problem, they tend to take the line that this is the only point where pressure can be applied. They recognise that the whole industry is a supply chain of many players, raw materials producers, packaging manufacturers, packaging users, packaged products retailers, consumers, waste collection and (the missing link) waste re-processers feeding back to the packaging manufacturers. If this was working properly, the petrochemical industry would only be topping up any raw materials lost in the process.
However, as with any supply chain, the law of supply and demand applies. If restrictions are applied at any point, by regulation or public demand, all stages of the process should be similarly restricted. We as consumers have the power to let the shops know what we think, by complaining or just not buying.
Also, be aware of industry hype from those whose only interest is selling oil. As with most big corporate organisations, the need for self-preservation will outweigh any moral or communal duty.