The Story of Plastic
Notes by Linda Whitebread (personal take on the film)
This film from ‘The Story of Stuff’ stable reviews the situation today regarding the build-up of plastic waste throughout the world. Crucial points for me were:
Plastic was first mass manufactured in the 1950s. It has many wonderful qualities – cheap to manufacture; versatile; attractive to use; durable. However its durability also represents its huge disadvantage. Elsewhere I have read that all the plastic ever produced still exists today.
The oil giants need to keep producing oil to make a profit. As well as being used as fuel, oil can be used in the manufacture of products such as fertilisers and plastic. This is especially true now that the demand for oil for energy is reducing.
So the rise of plastic manufacture has been supply- (of oil) led rather than demand-led.
A major use of single-use plastic Is in packaging. Paraphrased quotes from film:
1950’s: In response to the first laws limiting disposable packaging, US companies formed ’Keep America Beautiful Inc.’ Campaigning shifted the focus to litter, causing limits on disposable packaging to disappear for decades.
This later extended to recycling:
1990’s: The packaging industry continued to fight restrictions on disposables while promoting municipal-funded recycling. In the US, plastic recycling rates increased four-fold, funded by the tax-payer. The American Chemistry Council promoted recycling; under pressure municipalities in the US accepted hard plastics for the first time.
Figures given by the film
91% of plastic has never been recycled
Currently (? not sure at what date, or whether this is one country or globally):
32% ends up as litter
40% goes to landfill
14% recycled: but only 2% effectively recycled, ie becomes something as useful as what it was before. Most is downcycled – becomes something worse – and most is only recycled once before being incinerated, going to landfill, or ending up as litter.
2000s: The fast-moving consumer goods industry experienced slowing growth for the first time and began marketing to the rapidly developing middle class in the Global South. Packaged and processed foods replaced fresh.
Plastics have a real benefit, for example in hospitals, surgery. The real problem is packaging, especially multi-layered single-use sachets. Under the influence of aggressive marketing by the west, developing countries are moving from traditional sustainable, natural packaging to plastic packaging.
Double whammy: countries in Asia etc are encouraged to buy toxic single-use plastics, AND to receive plastic waste shipped from the west. We have exported the problem to other parts of the world and now say they are the problem.
Fossil fuel used for plastics, much of which are incinerated.
2018: As other nations joined China in banning scrap imports, plastic incineration increased around the world.
Incineration releases many toxic materials (eg cadmium, lead, mercury) into the environment. People living in the vicinity of incinerators have reported respiratory problems, dermatitis, infertility.
Yet the new incinerators need a supply of plastic to keep going. There is a huge web of infrastructure from oil refineries to incinerators all working together to increase the amount of plastics in the world and reduce recycling.
2005: US Energy Policy Act gave oil and gas companies exemptions to environmental and health regulations. Resulted in a shale gas boom and a glut of raw materials for plastic production.
As well as shale gas, the oil and gas pockets release other chemicals, eg benzene, xylene, harmful to health. Residents living near shale gas plants report headaches and respiratory problems.
2015: In the midst of the ongoing fracking boom, the US lifted a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports, setting off a rush of oil, gas and ‘plastic feedstock’ sales worldwide.
Huge increase in number of petro-chemical plants producing plastic. Eg in2017 Exxon and Saudi-Arabia’s SABIC jointly opened the world’s largest plastic manufacturing facility of its kind, receiving billions in US tax breaks and other subsidies.
These plants must continue to maximise production in order to pay off the debts incurred by building them.
2018: public awareness of plastic pollution increased because of media coverage of plastic in oceans.
Response: plastic companies say that the fault lies with consumers and countries with inadequate waste recycling infrastructure. The clean-up message, not the use of plastic packaging in the first place, has dominated the narrative.
The Alliance to End Plastic Waste was founded in 2019 by companies that make, use, sell, process, collect and recycle plastics. It pledged $1.5 billion to a clean-up programme.
Meanwhile $204 billion was spent on 334 new petrochemical facilities (when/where?)
Nanoplastics ‘recently’ found in 83% of global tapwater sampled and 93% of bottled water.
Can we find new alternatives to plastic?
Bioplastics: (ie plant based) also have sustainability challenges, including effective biodegradability.
Cost of new fossil-fuel based plastic is artificially low because of oil and gas subsidies of $5.2 trillion pa. This disincentivises the use of recycled content and other alternatives.
Reduce and re-use.
Ban single-use plastics: recent increase in banning of different products throughout the world, eg EU, China, Rwanda, Morocco.
Fight to end fossil fuel subsidies.
Require plastic packaging manufacturers to use a minimum amount of recycled plastic.
Companies have profited by externalising the environmental costs of the plastic (eg to taxpayers who fund recycling schemes; to developing countries). They must be made to absorb these costs.
Multinational companies are locked into their need for growth; and massive supply chains forcing them to rely on plastic packaging. Try to move to small-scale firms, more local, alternative delivery systems, building communities.
Support/join Break Free From Plastic https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/about/
Linda Whitebread 21/05/2020
See this article from The Guardian which talks about built-in obsolescence, especially of digital equipment. It doesn’t mention this, but I understand that when the first filament light bulbs were invented, it would have been possible to manufacture them to last indefinitely – but it was decided that that wouldn’t be good for business, and so a limited lifespan for each bulb became the norm. So ‘built-in obsolescence’ is not a new concept, but shocking nonetheless given the mountains of waste we are creating at a time of shrinking resources.
Good to see the reference to Repair Cafes!
The celebration of ‘Earth Day’ began in the US in 1970 when Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat Senator and governor of Wisconsin, proposed April 22 as a day for Americans to speak out about the environmental crisis. See him speaking here.
Since then Earth Day has been observed not only in the US but around the world. In 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day as the day when the historic Paris Agreement on climate change was signed into force.
2020 represents the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day and the theme for this year is climate change. It is ironic that on the one hand events to mark the day will this year have to be digital because of the coronavirus pandemic (arguably itself a result of our cavalier and exploitative approach to the natural world) while on the other hand environmentalists may be welcoming the fact that the price of American oil has just gone negative for the first time ever.
For more information, and how to get involved, visit the Earth Day website.
The charity Plantlife are urging councils to reduce verge cutting. They say:
“Roads have fallen quiet as lockdown is observed, as has the drone of many councils’ mowers. Councils are under considerable pressure due to the Coronavirus crisis and many have understandably reduced grass cutting down to essential management to maintain visibility and ensure road safety. There’s hope that reduced cutting frequencies might be a silver lining for verge wild flowers, giving once-familiar flowers, such as white campion, betony, greater knapweed and harebell, the chance to grow, flower and set seed.
As well allowing precious wild flowers the opportunity to thrive, reducing cutting and adopting a more wildlife-friendly management regime will also help tackle the climate crisis. Over 300 local authorities have now declared a climate emergency, so sustaining reduced cutting regimes will also help councils bring down carbon emissions.”
You can sign a petition to the county council here
Please note that, as you would expect, we are not able to meet in person during the current lockdown conditions.
Planning is still going ahead online. Contact us if you would like to participate.
After discussion and several iterations, 2G3S sent in a response to the Greater Cambridge Partnership Cambridge SE Transport Better Public Transport Project Consultation. The project proposes a new off-road public transport system using CAM (Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro) electric tram-like vehicles. The route would run from the Biomedical Campus (Addenbrooke’s site), through greenfield sites skirting Great Shelford, Stapleford and Sawston, to a new ‘travel hub’ near the A11/A1307/A505 (three options given).
For more details about the project, go to www.greatercambridge.org.uk/CambridgeSE
The closing date for comments was 4 November 2019. You can view the 2G3S response here
Some of us went to The Time is Now climate crisis lobby of Parliament on 26 June 2019. Heidi Allen, our MP, asked for ideas for first steps in tackling the crisis. After consultation among our members 2G3S produced a report which you can read here: Climate crisis measures for Heidi Allen.
We sent this to her on 1 August.
On 28 August Linda Whitebread and Peter Fane met Heidi at her drop-in surgery at Shelford Deli to discuss how she was getting on. She thanked us for the report and told us that a cross-party group of MPs are putting together a list of urgent climate action proposals that they will urge the government to include in the Queen’s Speech.
We are hoping that the Greater Cambridge Partnership will go ahead with the construction of a ‘Greenway’ (a route for cyclists, walkers and equestrians) from Cambridge through Stapleford to Sawston. They are gauging public support for the project by means of a survey; responses have to be in by end of Monday, 5 August. Local residents should have received a hard copy through their door, but you can also complete the survey online here:
and it only takes a few minutes to complete the form.
Details of the proposals are linked from https://consultcambs.uk.engagementhq.com/greenways-melbourn-sawston
We are encouraging people to strongly support option 5b over 5a. This is an extract from our Summer 2019 newsletter:
Jim Chisholm writes:
Stapleford: most crucially, a new route ‘B’ is proposed that avoids the difficult section through Mingle Lane and Church St. A roughly similar route was proposed in 2000, but this failed due to landowner objections. At that time, Sustrans did obtain a licence, which still holds, for a 500m strip of land adjacent to the rail line S from Shelford station, under London Road and as far as Wedd’s land off Granta Terrace. The newly proposed Route B would run close to the railway as far as the new Dernford reservoir, before using a path, with public access already agreed, around the reservoir perimeter to rejoin the existing route beyond Dernford Lane. Please strongly support route B from Shelford station.
Without such support negotiations with landowners for access to a 450m strip needed between the agreed Sustrans bit and the reservoir will be difficult.
If a further short link were to be created from the proposed path to the housing development on the old garage site, this would give a route from these dwellings to the London-bound platform at Shelford station, as well as an almost traffic free path to Sawston Village College.
A route alongside the Sawston by-pass to the ‘Spicers’ crossing is also proposed. For this to be a 24/7 commuter route and to be family friendly it will need to be behind a hedge, as routes directly adjacent to busy roads are unsafe in the dark due to vehicle headlights, and difficult for families because of the proximity and noise of heavy traffic. Please support this path, but with a hedge.
This was the first of our Conversation Evenings, held at The Rose, Stapleford, on 8 January 2019. There was a good turn-out on a winter’s evening to hear Janet O’Boyle introduce the subject before opening up a more general conversation.
Production and uses
The main producers are Indonesia and Malaysia. Oil palm is a very productive, cheap and land efficient crop, grown on large plantations and also by smallholders. The main uses in the UK are in processed food, cosmetics and cleaning products.
Food ingredients have to be labelled, now including palm oil, so it’s easier to know what you’re getting. Sometimes the label says “sustainable palm oil”. Can we assume it isn’t if it doesn’t?
Chemistry degree required!
“Palmate” on eg soap means derived from palm oil, “cocoate” from coconut oil etc.
Many chemical ingredients can be derived from palm oil and there are websites offering long lists of ingredients that indicate palm oil. But these could also be derived from coconut or other oils or petrochemicals, eg “palmitate” is a fatty acid found in coconut, olive and other oils as well as palm oil.
“Palm-oil free” may just mean that palm oil is not used as a whole ingredient.
Coconut oil requires 7 x as much land for the same yield as palm oil. Soya oil production is already contributing to habitat destruction in Brazil and Argentina. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) argues that these alternatives would contribute to even more biodiversity losses than palm oil.
Butter, containing no palm oil, has twice the global warming impact of margarine, which generally does contain palm oil.
Sustainable Palm Oil
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is made up of palm oil producers and buyers and environmental organisations like WWF. It produced a set of environmental and social criteria that must be complied with to label oil as Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. From November 2018 these include no deforestation, no burning, and some protection for human rights.
Currently 25% of palm oil is certified as sustainable. The market for it is limited, so some is sold as non-sustainable.
Should we be demanding more genuinely sustainable palm oil to encourage change rather than boycotting it all together? If we avoid all palm oil we reduce the drive for better sustainability. Iceland’s attempt to avoid palm oil in its own brand products proved unachievable. But Greenpeace’s campaign has led one of the biggest palm oil traders to monitor its suppliers and suspend any caught clearing rainforest.