Pathfinders: Plastic not so fantastic

Plastic not so fantastic

On 10 July 1940 war-time Britain saw the launch of the Great Aluminium Scare and a Beaverbrook campaign to ‘turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons’. Patriotic citizens responded by sacrificing useful metal kitchenware and bathroom fittings which created mountains all over the country. Scrap metal mania even extended to tearing up the railings round municipal parks, though cast iron scrap had little practical value. Indeed most of these scrap mountains went into landfill or post-war scrap metal shops since, as RAF Museum curator Rob Skitmore pointed out in 2005, ‘in fact we had lots of aluminium, what we needed more of were pilots’ (see

The point of course was to give the population something practical to do so they could feel like part of the war effort. In short, a propaganda exercise. After all Lord Beaverbrook, aside from being Churchill’s minister of aircraft production, was also owner of the Daily Express, the world’s largest circulation newspaper at that time.

Is something similar happening today with the Great Plastic Scare? It seems to have started with the BBC Blue Planet II documentary earlier this year, which highlighted the problem of plastic ocean waste and resurrected 2016 World Economic Forum predictions that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Now the rush is on to ditch the use of plastic cups, cotton buds, plastic straws, wet wipes, plastic bags, plastic food wrappings, in short, plastic anything. The UK government is now compiling a list of plastic items to ban and a plastic tax is being considered by the Treasury (‘Public ‘back’ taxes to tackle single-use plastic waste’, BBC, 18 August). Practically overnight, plastic has become the new demon.

The problem is, things are always more complicated than news headlines make them out to be. While there’s no doubt that global capitalism is using the planet like a giant dustbin, the solutions aren’t always so obvious. Whatever you do is going to have an environmental impact. If you swap single-use plastic bags for a cotton tote bag, you’ll have to use it 131 times before reaching impact parity, because of the high environmental cost of cotton production (New Scientist, 13 June). If you avoid food containing palm oil but drive with the latest ‘green’ biofuels, you’ll be burning palm oil instead of eating it and thus still contributing to the devastation of Madagascar. In theory one could use different vegetable oils in fuel, but they would require massively more land than oil palms need. If you decide to avoid fossil gas central heating in favour of a trendy and ‘clean’ wood burning stove, you’ll be treating your neighbours to the equivalent of eight trucks parked in the street with their engines on all night (New Scientist, 2 June).

People during the war probably didn’t need or want to know that they were making pointless sacrifices. What they craved was the feelgood factor. So today people don’t perhaps want to know that most of the contents of their recycle bins is likely to end up incinerated or in landfill, or sent abroad. According to the National Audit Office, the government doesn’t have any idea whether or what percentage of ‘recyclables’ is being recycled, has ‘turned a blind eye’ to known problems in the waste stream, has only carried out 40 percent of the recycling checks it was supposed to, and has been exporting over 50 percent of the waste it claims as ‘recycled’ (‘Recycled packaging ‘may end up in landfill’, warns watchdog’, BBC, 23 July).

You’d be excused for thinking that the whole recycling programme is a bit of a con. Most of the plastic we rinse and put in recycle bins is not actually recyclable, largely because manufacturers use cheap, low-grade and non-biodegradable industrial polymers. Well of course they do, but other reasons are more trivial. Fresh food containers are very often carbon black because food products apparently look good on black, but recycling machines can’t detect black (‘Plastic food pots and trays are often unrecyclable, say councils’, BBC, 4 August). Plastic cups don’t get recycled, not because they couldn’t be, but because there is no regional collection infrastructure for them. And if there was, would the road haulage fleet required then cancel out the carbon benefits of the recycling?

It’s not that we shouldn’t bother making any individual efforts. Of course we should, and many of us do, because a future socialist society wouldn’t last five minutes without a strong and abiding sense of personal responsibility. But too much focus on little things like cotton buds and wet wipes – which apparently cause giant ‘fatbergs’ in London’s sewage system – can become a seductive invitation to forget the big picture, to kid yourself you’re doing something when you’re really not.

Some young activists, too young even to vote, are making bold attempts to take their governments, or international corporations to court over climate change (New Scientist, 18 August). How much success these ‘climate kids’ are going to have suing capitalist institutions inside capitalist courts is something socialists can hazard a cynical guess at.

But at least they’re trying to raise the climate stakes to match the rising temperature.
What really needs putting in the dock of course is capitalism itself, and the total control and squandering of Earth’s resources by less than 1 percent of its population. If the public scare about plastic is viewed as an indicator of a growing sense of communal outrage on behalf of the planet, we might be encouraged, but only if this outrage starts to take an explicit and political form. If however people are happy to settle for tokenistic efforts for the sake of a quiet life, the class war will continue indefinitely, and socialists will have to battle on alone.

Genoa Bridge Collapse

As we go to press the cause of this collapse is not yet known, but metal corrosion in the steel cables reinforcing the concrete structure is suspected. Acoustic sensors are a new technology which can ‘hear’ internal corrosion, and recently resulted in London’s Hammersmith Flyover being urgently refurbished, but most bridges don’t have them, as the cost would be huge. Globally bridges are often in a poor state. 7 percent of French bridges are at risk of collapse, 12 percent of Germany’s are in bad condition, and 54,000 US bridges are ‘structurally deficient’ (New Scientist, 17 August). No doubt a 10-year recession and government cutbacks in every country have done nothing to improve matters. Whatever the state of road bridges in socialism might be, at least we can say that saving money wouldn’t be a factor.