I haven’t seen Blue Planet II. I may be the only person in the country who hasn’t. But I’ve heard about it. Of course I have. Because now we are at war with plastic. We will fight plastic on our streets, we will fight plastic in our supermarkets and we will fight plastic on our beaches.
As someone who has dabbled for a number of years both professionally and personally in sustainability, I’m intrigued by this instantaneous swell of activity and activism. I wonder, why now? Why are people all of a sudden questioning unnecessary use of plastics? What made people move from seemingly not giving a fig about the environment to overnight launching a full blown assault against plastics? And the answer I have is, ‘you know, because of the turtles’.
In the war on plastics, it takes almost no effort to be crowned a hero and the cynic in me would say it’s merely an easy route for virtue signalling. Buy a reusable water bottle, stick it in the side of your backpack and show the world how totally woke you are! It’s also dawned on people that getting a coffee every day in a single-use cup might not be completely OK. I saw someone on a train being reprimanded by their friend for having a single-use cup who accused them of “destroying the planet”. Fortunately, they need not feel too bad because they can buy a KeepCup and everything will be all right, the planet will be saved!
Recent action has gone beyond the stuff we are drinking our coffee and water from. The UK government has banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics and green-lit the deposit scheme where consumers will get a bit of cash for returning their empty bottles. Iceland has pledged to remove all plastic from its own label products by 2023. Consumers have started tweeting photos to supermarkets with #PointlessPlastic when they see fresh produce unnecessarily wrapped in single-use plastic. This is all a move in the right direction that I can’t really quibble with.
The reason why feelings are slightly mixed is that I’m concerned that attention is being focussed on one piece of the puzzle. On the one hand, yes, of course we should be consuming less plastic and it’s a far from bad thing that everyone is questioning their use but it can’t stop there. If businesses are reducing their use of plastic, then great, but that’s not their corporate social responsibility done and dusted - it doesn’t automatically earn them carte blanche everywhere else. Are we looking beyond plastics and making real and timely commitments in other areas that impact on the environment – to the things we eat, the clothes we wear, how we get around? Maybe, maybe not. The best case scenario is that the war on plastics is part of something bigger; part of wider, multilevel action against the systemic factors underpinning climate change, and by drawing attention to the issue of plastics this will set in motion a cascade of activity where businesses, governments and individuals at their heart become more sustainable. I truly hope for this kind of sea change but have reason to be doubtful.
I’ve fallen in and out of putting my efforts behind the sustainability challenge. It’s disheartening to encounter inertia at every turn and feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle that you’ll ultimately lose. Even someone’s recycling habits are difficult to change and I’ve lived in enough shared houses to know this to be true. People, unsurprisingly, don’t like being told that an element of their lives is fundamentally wrong and they need to alter their behaviour. I have heard otherwise completely reasonable individuals say, “Well, I’ll be dead by the time climate change really becomes a problem, so it’s not my problem.” The scale and complexity, and ultimately, distance, of climate change is enough for people to switch off - it’s not of concern to us because its effects aren’t being felt by us right here and right now. And can we blame them? Why should we change when we don’t see governments or corporations acting in the same way and leading by example?
We can’t rely on David Attenborough to be the sole person who makes people sit up and care about this stuff. He’s not going to be around forever and I worry Michael Gove as Environment Secretary doesn’t have the same level of the country’s unfaltering affection and loyalty to step into his shoes. Don’t get me wrong, I am with the anti-plastic brigade, but it’s a battle not a war. Yes, it’s about the turtles but also about not completely trashing the planet for ourselves and future generations; it’s about human’s living sustainably and responsibly on this planet, and truly responding collectively to the challenge of climate change. Let’s all be little Attenboroughs.