Talk to your grandparents and they are quick to remember a world without plastic, so how have things changed so quickly?
Globalization and the Plastic Age.
Globalization has been a dynamic force in the history of plastic and continues to cause problems and also potential solutions to the Plastic Age.
When plastic was first mass-produced after WW2 it was revolutionary; in Plastics (1945) Yarlsey and Cousen wrote of a world ‘free from moth and rust and full of colour…a world in which nations are more and more independent of localised natural resources’.
The lightweight, cheap and durable nature of plastic makes it the height of convenience. It’s used in cables, planes, computers, mobiles, and microchips, facilitating the rapid growth of global communications and transport systems.
Transnational corporations thrive on the stuff, single use plastics in particular; globally it’s estimated that consumer goods are wrapped in 207 million tonnes of packaging every year. Products can keep longer and travel further.
Moreover, plastic itself is based on a spatially dispersed production chain, spanning the oil refineries of Saudi Arabia to the plastic pellet production plants of Taiwan.
For these reasons, globalization plays a key role in the lifecycle of plastic both in its production and in its demand, but its reach doesn’t stop there. The very properties of plastic that make it desirable – durable, cheap, light – also make it a pernicious and ‘globalised’ pollutant at the end of its life.
A lot of plastic avoids its ‘official’ or standard waste disposal channels – landfill, incineration and recycling – and instead ends up in the ocean. It gets here via overflowing street bins, open dumps, leaky landfills, polluting companies and poor waste management both in the private and public sector.
Plastic then moves around the oceans with the currents, collecting in five major gyres; the most famous of which is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most of the plastics are 5mm or smaller, otherwise known as microplastics.
Crucially, as plastics move with the currents they disregard national borders. Hence the ‘globalization’ of plastic pollution blurs the lines of responsibility and jeopardizes the ‘fairness’ of the distribution of effects. Demand in one country can fuel the environmental degradation of another.
When we can’t see the direct effect of our plastic consumption on the ocean, we seem to have greater trouble processing our responsibility. Just because our local beach is plastic free doesn’t mean the plastic cup we threw away last week hasn’t made it to the high seas and is affecting other people’s lives.
National Geographic puts this more technically: “A plastic water bottle discarded off the coast of California, for instance, takes the California Current south toward Mexico. There, it may catch the North Equatorial Current”.
So, globalization is at play on many different levels throughout the lifecycle of plastic. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, it also appears to play a role in the last piece of the plastic puzzle – ways to move forward.
Globalization as a solution
This starts with a change of mentality or perspective so that we see ourselves as global citizens.
Global citizens see a single global community, moving beyond national boundaries and focusing on individuals, all of whom are part of the same global community and entitled to the same rights and responsibilities.
In other words, we must abolish NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiment. Just because our local beach might not be covered in plastic doesn’t mean the issue doesn’t plague other beaches across the world and that we are, in part, responsible for this.
Once we identify as global citizens we can start doing our bit. For example, we might avoid or replace disposable plastic products with more durable alternatives, like stainless steel razors, bamboo toothbrushes, cotton bags, non-plastic tampon applicators or unwrapped bulk soap.
As ‘global citizens’ we might be able to create the momentum for real change.
Photo: Dmitry Tonkonog /Xenia Fedosova (CC BY-SA 3.0)