Modern life is rubbish
Modern life is rubbish
A sea turtle about to eat a styrofoam cup. It is difficult for animals in the sea to know what is food and what is plastic. Photo: Paulo Oliveira/Alamy
I was born in 1965; and someone invented the plastic bag in 1965.
When I was a child, in a big city in central India, there were not many plastic bags. We only got them in expensive shops and my mother washed them and used them again and again.
In the years since then, plastic bags have become very very strong but they are used for a lot less time. Most plastic bags are only used for 15 minutes. But they take as long as 1000 years to break down. People use two million plastic bags every minute around the world.
Half of all the plastic things we make are things that people use only once. We do something with them quickly and then throw them away so the plastics industry can produce more. Plastic is linked to fossil fuel companies: all big companies that produce plastics own oil and gas companies, or oil and gas companies own them. And plastics made up six per cent of oil use in the world in 2014. The plastics industries do not want to stop destroying the environment.
We have so much plastic in the world – and it is all still with us except the small part that people have burned. And it is the symbol of the modern world where we throw everything away. The world produces the same weight of plastic each year as the weight of all the humans who live here!
In the Pacific Ocean, there is a very big island of floating plastic – three times the size of France – called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Coca-Cola produces 120 billion plastic bottles each year – enough to circle our planet 700 times. We throw it all away – the plastic things and the packaging - often without thinking - but also because there is so much of it.
I remember when a family member brought some cotton buds to our house and my mother saved a few of the plastic sticks. She used them again by putting cotton wool in one end. Before, she had used a hair pin. She couldn’t understand why she would need to buy them again and she couldn’t understand why anyone would throw them away.
But then plastic beat her too. She started buying cooking oil in plastic jugs, not refilling a glass bottle at the shop. (This was better for quality and hygiene.) Then she had too many plastic jugs to keep other things in. And there were not enough poorer people to take them away. So finally she had to throw the plastic away.
There is a lot about plastic in the news. It kills life in the water. Fish, birds and animals eat it. If we burn it, we produce toxic waste. If we store it in landfill sites, it fills the earth with unnatural products that never decompose. Many poorer countries, including 25 in Africa, have banned single-use plastic bags – but it often takes a long time for people to follow the new law.
There was a documentary on the BBC, called Drowning in Plastic, about all the problems plastic causes in the sea. Many people are trying to stop this, but it has no effect because more and more plastic is being produced. The documentary showed volunteers cleaning up the sea, groups recycling plastic, developing bioplastic from seaweed in Indonesia, and machines that take plastic from the ocean. But the conclusion was that all this only helps a very little. BBC documentaries before told us that we should all help with this sort of problem. But this documentary was more radical: we need to stop plastic.
Environmentalists have said this about waste for decades – it is better to stop producing waste than try to get rid of it afterwards (but that is also necessary). It is very difficult today, to try to live without too much plastic because plastic is everywhere. We need a change in the system, not just a change by some individual people.
Industry and the political system do not like this message because they want the economy to grow. Plastic is cheap (if you don’t think about the environment), strong, lasts a long time and is hygienic. But because we use it too much, it is irresponsible use of technology.
This year Earth Overshoot Day – the day when we have used more from nature than we can renew in a year – was on 1 August. Next year it will probably be in July. At a national level the US Overshoot Day was on 15 March, and Britain on 8 May. We use far too much than we can replace.
Our vision of a good life forever is based on what we can use quickly and throw away – because we then need to buy more. This vision makes millions of people work like slaves to make cheap things from using up the world’s resources far too quickly. People talk about wars for resources or the planet dying because of the rubbish; but people don’t talk about stopping growth. Too much rubbish (not just plastic) is not just because of population growth, but because of our lifestyles, especially in the West. People produce more rubbish than ever before and there is no sign this will slow down, even now that people are more worried about the environment.
If we put all the solid waste that homes, schools and small business produce each year on rubbish trucks, they would circle the planet 24 times. Homes produce only 30 per cent of this, but this is where many people think the main problem is. But industrial waste, which not many people talk about, is 18 times more. In rich countries it is like 42 kilos of waste per person each day – and that is before a product gets into the shops.
This is because, where the economy is based on growth, no-one likes products that last a long time. This is because we need to produce more in industry. In 1928, Paul Mazur (an investment banker and partner at Lehman brothers) talked to the Advertising Club of New York, saying that we have made ‘obsolescence’ (designing products so they can only be used for a short time) a god. If we can make everything people buy today obsolete, we have a whole new market for tomorrow.
Many consumer organizations have studied this. Many more expensive, electronic things stop working when the warranty period finishes. In the digital age, obsolescence becomes quicker. Many things are out of date before they stop working. And if people continue to use them without updates, no-one can repair them.
Steve Jobs said, ‘If you ... want the latest and greatest ... you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year.’ He also said, ‘Apple has a really strong environmental policy.’
Some organisations eg. OECD have said since the 1980s that we need to produce things that last longer so we don’t have so much waste. But governments are valued by the growth of the economy, so no-one pays any attention. People want governments to make laws to force industry to make things that last longer.
But there is no economic model that makes money for products that last longer. There are a few small companies like Patagonia. They make outdoor clothes and tell people only to buy their clothes if they really need them, and they repair the clothes too. This company is growing quickly. (But if all companies did this, people would buy less and make less money).
There is a new phrase: the ‘circular economy’. It means more responsibility from the producer. Producers need to re-use and recycle the products to use the parts again. This is growth but by using less material.
People tell us to ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ but we need to remember that recycling is only managing the waste, not reducing it. To cut the waste, we need to refuse to buy things with too much packaging, buy less, share where possible and reuse things.
Recycling is of course much better than using new materials. It’s better than sending stuff to landfill or to burn. But many people do not know that recycling is an industrial process and needs a lot of energy, which produces toxic waste. The result is often ‘down-cycling’: for example, plastic bottles become carpets and synthetic clothing that cannot then be recycled again. (And every washing machine wash of the downcycled clothing will release 700,000 microplastic particles.)
And the market plays games with recycling. Waste management companies in the West make more profit from sending waste to landfill or to burn than to recycle. Strange things happen, for example, recycling companies in Australia have thousands of tonnes of glass waiting to be recycled. Because it’s cheaper to import new glass bottles than recycle the old ones. People can use the word ‘recycling’ to mean different things. For example, Sweden used to say they recycled nearly 100 per cent of everything; but they included the energy from burning rubbish in the recycling. Australian waste companies have said they were recycling when taking trucks of construction waste across state borders, but the waste was just left there as landfill.
One person’s waste ...
For decades, dangerous Western electronic waste, (increasing much more quickly than other waste), has been going to many places in the Global South. The processes used are dangerous for workers. The shipping companies say this is recycling, but the countries it goes to say it’s dumping. After the Basel Convention, we now have more laws to control the movement of e-waste (electrical and electronic waste), so taking these to Africa is different now. They send them as used goods that people can repair, or charity donations. This gets past the laws. In reality, the e-waste breaks very quickly and has to go to a rubbish dump.
We often see pictures of the very big open rubbish dumps in poor countries. This waste is lost resources. People say those who try to find useful things in the dumps are heroes. But they would much prefer to have different work. They have no choice and have to work in dirty, smelly, dangerous conditions.
In rich countries, the mountain of waste makes us look for solutions. But it can be a lot worse in the Global South. But most people in the Global South are much better at using and re-using things. People sell old paper, metal and clothes. And people in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia through away only 6 – 11 kilos of food per year each, compared to 95-115 kilos per year in Europe and North America.
The biggest problem is that no-one knows what to do with the cheap things. For example dumps of plastic next to rivers in Asia. People see what plastic is doing to the environment, but they can’t see any other choices.
We are happy when the Indian state of Sikkim bans plastic bags or the Mayan village of San Pedro La Laguna bans straws and polystyrene containers. We like it when creative people do upcycling of waste (even though we know this will have a tiny effect). We like thinking about the techno-biological ‘solutions’ – for example, caterpillars that can eat plastic, Chinese cockroach farms for food waste (and they then turn the cockroaches into food for pigs), the Indian scientist adding plastic to asphalt for roads ...
And we are getting more angry about packaging. For example activists in Britain forced a crisp company, Walkers, to recycle the crisp packaging. Now some companies that produce throwaway waste are worried.
But the big problem is still the economic system. George Monbiot (environmentalist) said that we need to cut what we all use, but we also need to fight against the system that produces all the rubbish. We need to fight companies, change politics and challenge capitalism.
Could it be possible to have an economic system with democratic production where we only produce what we need, in sustainable ways?
News this year showed that British fashion company Burberry had burned more than £28 million ($36m) of its unused clothing and cosmetics products over the past year to try to stop people creating fake products. And this is not unusual in the expensive fashion industry. Before that, Burberry had signed an agreement to prevent waste. They said they were serious about this, and that they had worked with specialist companies who used the energy from big fire to make it environmentally friendly. So does that mean it’s OK?
I think of my mother again. She always wanted a new sari, but she could not imagine – like most Indians – throwing away any clothes, far less burning clothes. When we were children, she made our trousers longer when we got taller. She took sweaters apart and re-used the wool in new designs. Clothes never became unfashionable, they just went to different people. And things that were really old were used as cleaning cloths. This was a natural instinct. To my mother it was about knowing how much things are really worth.
NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/immersive/2018/11/01/modern-life-rubbish
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