The known unknowns of plastic pollution

So far, it seems less bad than other kinds of pollution (about which less fuss is made)

MR MCGUIRE had just one word for young Benjamin, in “The Graduate”: plastics. It was 1967, and chemical engineers had spent the previous decade devising cheap ways to splice different hydrocarbon molecules from petroleum into strands that could be moulded into anything from drinks bottles to Barbie dolls. Since then global plastic production has risen from around 2m tonnes a year to 380m tonnes, nearly three times faster than world GDP.

Unfortunately, of the 6.3bn tonnes of plastic waste produced since the 1950s only 9% has been recycled and another 12% incinerated. The rest has been dumped in landfills or the natural environment. Often, as with disposable coffee cups, drinks bottles, sweet wrappers and other packets that account for much of the plastic produced in Europe and America, this happens after a brief, one-off indulgence. If the stuff ends up in the sea, it can wash up on a distant beach or choke a seal. Exposed to salt water and ultraviolet light, it can fragment into “microplastics” small enoughto find their way into fish bellies. From there, it seems only a short journey to dinner plates.

Countries as varied as Bangladesh, France and Rwanda have duly banned plastic bags. Since last year anyone offering them in Kenya risks four years in prison or a fine of up to $40,000. In January China barred imports of plastic waste, while the European Union launched a “plastics strategy”, aiming, among other things, to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and raise the proportion that is recycled from 30% to 55% over the next seven years. A British levy on plastic shopping bags, introduced in 2015, helped cut use of them by 85%. On February 22nd Britain’s environment secretary, Michael Gove, mused about prohibiting plastic straws altogether.

Fearful for their reputations, big companies are shaping up. Coca-Cola has promised to collect and recycle the equivalent of all the drinks containers it shifts each year, including 110bn plastic bottles. Consumer-goods giants such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble vow to use more recycled plastics. McDonald’s plans to make all its packaging from recycled or renewable sources by 2025, up from half today, and wants every one of its restaurants to recycle straws, wrappers, cups and the like.

The perception of plastics as ugly, unnatural, inauthentic and disposable is not new. Even in “The Graduate” they symbolised America’s consumerism and moral emptiness. Visible plastic pollution is an old complaint, too (years ago, plastic bags caught in trees were nicknamed “witches’ knickers”). What is new is the suspicion that microplastics are causing widespread harm to humans and the environment in an invisible, insidious manner. “Blue Planet 2”, a nature series presented by Sir David Attenborough that aired in Britain last October and in America in January, made the case beautifully. But the truth is that little is known about the environmental consequences of plastic—and what is known doesn’t look hugely alarming.


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