AS LEARNED commissions debate whether to declare a new humandominated era of geological time – the Anthropocene – we are already making facts on and under the ground.
Since plastics were widely introduced in the 1950s, we have dumped an estimated 4.9 billion tonnes into the environment. Most goes to landfill for future generations to unearth. But it is marine waste that has spurred public desire for action. Images from the BBC documentary Blue Planet II of marine wildlife snared by plastics are a visceral indictment of our throwaway culture. Claims that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, made at the World Economic Forum in 2016, have great power to shock.
The new focus is to be welcomed. It has caused many companies and individuals to reconsider their use of plastics, and empowered many to think that they can make a positive difference to the planet.
But we should be sober in adopting solutions (see page 25). Climate change and the loss of biodiversity remain our top environmental concerns, and we cannot afford to adopt plastic alternatives that increase, not decrease, our impact on the planet. A cotton tote bag or steel water bottle may generate higher carbon emissions over its lifetime. A rush to bio-derived plastics may, as with biofuels, increase land cleared for crops. Plastics that degrade faster risk increasing the scourge of microplastic in the environment if not partnered with better waste management.
Plastics exist for a reason: they cost comparatively little in terms of energy to produce, while providing big wins in hygiene, health and the reduction of food waste. If industry, government and consumers work together we can stamp out our waste problem. But let’s not throw the baby out with the plastic bath tub.***