The problem of waste plastics won’t be ended merely by the actions of concerned citizens – it will take something new, profound and dynamic.
If the Queen of England’s doing it, with fanfare, you know it’s got to be significant. And it is. David Attenborough’s sensational Blue Planet series awakened the masses to a truth long known by anyone half interested in the environment – that the oceans are being smothered in plastic waste. As I recall it, Thor Hyadal, crossing the Atlantic on his raft the “Kontiki” to try to prove the Egyptians got to South America and built pyramids, reported giant floating masses of debris tens of miles across in remote regions. Then it was the great marine ecologist and inventor of the aqualung Jacques Cousteau.
Latterly it has been revealed that polar ice sheets, which freeze from the top down, have trapped even denser quantities of plastics than elsewhere, and that microplastics are making their insidious way even into our bodies, possibly accumulating in our vital organs, with as-yet unknown consequences. The royal household is thus sticking it to the single use plastics industry, emulated by people up and down the land – indeed all over the world.
So that’s it then, is it? We can now rely on this wave of popular concern to end the flow of millions of tons of plastics, including insidious microplastics, into the oceans?
Not a chance, I’m afraid. No more than any other “small and easy” solutions to environmental problems have done in the past. Does the carbon-offset contribution you made on that flight to Malaga really make a jot of difference to the decline of the natural world, for example? How about your organic food buying – even your assiduous recycling habits - think they’re really the bees-knees of world conservation? Sadly the answer is no – not while huge industries and billions of other people around the world don’t know, don’t care, or simply can’t be bothered, and most importantly, while business finds it profitable to make all this throwaway stuff.
I don’t mean to denigrate the valiant efforts of ordinary people like us, never mind Royalty. Voluntary recycling and waste management is helpful to some degree, though perhaps mostly only because it gets people in the right frame of mind about it all. I do it myself, but really only out of conviction - I know it means little or nothing in the overall scheme of things. But even in the unlikely event that the whole of Europe and the US never threw out one more item of plastic waste from tomorrow, do you really think it would make much difference to the decline of the world ecosystem for decades to come? What about Guatemala, the Philippines, Brazil, Bolivia, the DRC, China, Russia, Morocco and so on and on?
Back in March I was in a supermarket on St Lucia: one-use plastic bags being issued a dozen at a time: everywhere in forgotten corners discarded plastic bags, straws, cups. Shredded bags caught on bushes like discarded bunting after a mega jump-up: untended beaches speckled with plastic waste. That’s the world scene – and it’s what really matters. And at the heart of it all is not bad people, not bad businesses – just bad economics.
The fact is that manufacturing production of all kinds follows the buck: it does what pays. Plastic straws and cups only exist for one simple reason – because they are cheaper to buy or manage than non-plastic versions – so they allow more profit, which is the primary motivation of business. This is because the costs that generate a decision to use plastic (and indeed any other potentially polluting or wasteful product) when less environmentally options exist, don’t take into account the costs to the environment – the “externalities”. Why? The answer is simple: they aren’t made to.
A lot of store is set these days around recycling – rightly so of course. The world needs to work towards a ‘circular economy’ in which materials move from one state to another as they are manufactured, recycled and then remanufactured. But that only works where it’s economic both to collect and to re-use, and that’s far too often the case. So all over the world mountains of waste pile up, or are buried in landfills.
So the only (and I mean THE ONLY) way to ensure that polluting materials don’t reach the environment is for governments firstly to make sure that they are profitable to reclaim, or where that’s impossible, that aren’t viable to manufacture. The only way to ensure the first is to nurture and fast-track new recycling technologies (they’re out there but struggling to be viable and thus do their job on the necessary scale – eg see plasticenergy.com); and to ensure the second is to artificially make single-use plastics more expensive than their eco-friendly competitors - to price them out of the market using economic levers – levies on the latter passed across as subsidies to the former.
Accelerating beneficial technology thus requires government financial help – best raised through levies on ‘externalities’ ring-fenced into subsidies. To get to the kind of inter-‘species’ balance – ‘symbiosis’ - that Nature enjoys so successfully, our ‘economic ecosystem’ thus needs to be rapidly purged of its polluters in favour of benign, symbiotic actors.
In Nature anything that destroys its environment eventually destroys itself – sound familiar? The human race can’t afford to go any further down this road. It’s time to take stock and have a look into Nature’s handbook of balanced ecosystems. Not just for plastics and greenhouse gases, but for everything – especially including valuable wilderness such as forests, marshes and savannahs.
In the end it’s down to governments to get together to form a cohesive plan. Having a World Environment Organisation could help a lot with this. It’s not rocket science, no more than simply putting a tax on plastic bags is, but it will work. As sure as ‘eggs is eggs’, businesses and individuals alike will respond in the only way they know – by taking the most profitable option. When that option is the best one for the environment – what’s not to like? Thus Ecosystem economics is the only way forward that is guaranteed to work.
(Simon Lamb is the author of Junglenomics (Nature’s solutions to the world environment crisis: a new paradigm for the twenty-first century and beyond) www.junglenomics.com