IN APRIL 1994, senior executives from the seven largest tobacco companies in the US appeared before a Congressional committee on health. One by one the men took it in turns to tell chair Democrat Henry Waxman from California that nicotine isn’t addictive. Speaking some three decades after the US Surgeon General’s landmark report on smoking and lung cancer, the kingpins of big tobacco just about managed to keep a straight face throughout. Fast forward to 2019 and there’s a stark comparison with the rhetoric happening around the plastic crisis.
Good business doing the right thing in the right way makes the world go around at a time when Nature needs all the help it can get. But so often corporations vested in maintaining a proven destructive status quo deploy breathtakingly bold but paper-thin diversionary tactics to delay desperately needed change.
Industry leaders have known for decades exactly how damaging the plastic they’ve been selling us has been to the planet. In 1972, two seminal papers were published in the journal Science, revealing the presence of plastic in the North Atlantic Ocean. Researchers found around 3500 plastic particle pieces per square kilometre in the western Sargasso Sea. In 1979, a Hawaii state circuit court struck down a plastic bottle ban following covert lobbying from the Society of the Plastics Industry.
Some four decades later the world’s biggest producers are seeking to shape the debate in a more overt way. Earlier this year, 30 chemical and plastics manufacturers from around the world clubbed together to launch the self-styled Alliance to End Plastic Waste. The firms have committed to investing some £778 billion over the next five years in infrastructure and innovation. Hidden amongst an almost implausibly vague set of campaign objectives is a vow to keep plastic waste “in the right place.” There is no measurable goal of reducing the actual production of the plastic that will almost always become valueless waste plaguing our oceans and landscapes for decades to come. Many of the members of this plastic waste-fighting Alliance are also the world’s biggest plastic polluters. It’s like arsonists lobbying for better fire extinguishers.
The tipping point for the tobacco industry was, of course, the final acceptance that it is damaging to human health. Many scientists believe the omnipresence of plastic – now measurable in our air, our soil, our drinking water and even our own bodies – is also impacting our health. Will this be the tipping point for plastic? The final reckoning that EPR [Extended Produce’ Responsibility] will actually extend beyond ‘recycling’ and mean culpability for the impact of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals our plastic is riddled with? Environmental lawyers Client Earth and CIEL reports state it could be only a matter of time.
Our industry leaders have Herculean tasks ahead. They need to lead us out of our addictive misuse of a miraculous but toxic material and must do so with absolute transparency. Plastic pacts, pledges and policies that include slippery words like ‘recyclable’ (by whom exactly?) are no longer sufficient for an increasingly savvy citizen. Nor is creating deflective quangos. Blaming plastic pollution on littering is yet another diversionary tactic; heaping the responsibility again on the public who don’t yet have much plastic-free choice. People buy what they are sold. It is industry’s job to sell them something different. It really is that simple.
Sian Sutherland is Co-Founder of A Plastic Planet (and a Founding Member of The Conduit). The global campaign group has a single goal – to ignite and inspire the world to turn off the plastic tap. To learn more about Sian and A Plastic Planet, listen to her interview on our podcast, Conduit Conversations.