By Mick Le Moignan
Recent news coverage in Jersey and Australia prompts me to devote my 100th JEP column to a very big problem – in fact, a colossal one, which affects everyone. Unless we implement serious solutions it will become a terrible scourge for future generations.
Plastic waste may well become an environmental catastrophe. As with climate change, we won’t know where the point of no return is until we’ve passed it. Earlier this month millions of tiny ‘nurdles’ (pellets used in the manufacturing of plastic products) washed up on Jersey beaches and the French and Spanish Atlantic coasts.
The UN estimates that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. That may well be a wild underestimate. According to a report by Australia’s Minderoo Foundation and other international partners, the world population used 139 million tonnes of single-use plastic in 2021, a 4% increase on 2019. That’s 16kg a year for every man, woman and child on the planet.
Of course, in Australia – and probably Jersey – we use about three times as much as that, per person, and half of it is household waste. The Australian Bureau of Statistics calculates that we generated 2.5 million tonnes in 2018-19 and only sent 9% of it for recycling. So we are all creating our own weight in plastic waste, every 18 months or two years. How long can this go on?
Many of us try to recycle what we can. Australia used to send much of our plastic waste to China – but they stopped accepting it in 2018, forcing us to look for another solution.
Up stepped our friendly supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, who put recycling bins at many of their stores. They didn’t mind us bringing back the packaging we’d bought from them in the first place – and they didn’t mind if we bought some more while we were there.
Three months ago, investigative reporters from Melbourne newspaper The Age lifted the lid on a very smelly can of worms: they discovered that the national recycling scheme, REDcycle, which claimed to have diverted more than five billion pieces of plastic waste from landfill over the past decade, wasn’t processing it any more.
For at least four years it had been secretly stockpiling thousands of tonnes in dozens of huge warehouses in suburban Melbourne and Sydney. Plastics made from petroleum are highly flammable, so this was a terrible fire risk.
Just like the supermarket chains, the state governments of New South Wales and Victoria like to be seen to be doing something about the plastics problem. They have banned single-use items such as plastic shopping bags, straws, plates and cutlery, but they haven’t made much headway on plastic packaging, which still increases by about 2% per year.
They expressed outrage, on behalf of the community, and the Victorian government is taking REDcycle to court, where it may be fined as much as $165,000. Both states ordered Coles and Woolworths to dump 5,200 tonnes of plastic waste into landfill, at a potential cost of $3.5m.
This is barely a slap on the wrist for the supermarkets. Their profits last year came to $2.5 billion. One economist reckoned that, when they replaced single-use shopping bags with ‘multi-use’ ones at 15 cents each, the supermarket chains made an extra $71 million a year and most of the bags were only used once, anyway. They don’t mind being environmentally conscious and socially responsible – if there’s a quid in it.
There is something dreadfully wrong about supermarkets portraying themselves as selfless saviours of their customers, helping us to dispose of all this plastic waste we have recklessly acquired. It’s impossible to shop at any supermarket without carrying home a stack of unwanted plastic – and they haven’t wrapped everything in plastic for our convenience, but for theirs. They’ve done it to extend their products’ shelf life and carry bar codes, so they can employ fewer staff on their check-outs.
The whole story of plastic waste has been cleverly spun to put the onus on consumers to do the recycling, rather than either banning plastic production or taxing it so heavily that big corporations no longer find it profitable to produce it.
The three biggest producers of polymers for single-use plastics are ExxonMobil, the Chinese company Sinopec and Dow Chemicals, who together produced almost 18 million tonnes of polymers in 2021. Why do they do this? Because they find it hugely profitable. Recycling alone isn’t a solution: production of new plastics also has to be stopped by law, taxation or both.
Many well-meaning individuals, including King Charles III, make voluntary payments to ‘offset’ their carbon footprint.
Commentators have compared this transference of guilt to the medieval Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. The Church told its followers they were riddled with sin but then gave them an opportunity to shed some of their impurities by confessing to a priest and paying for the privilege. Obedient members of the flock could expiate their guilt and the clergy were rewarded for their comparative holiness.
Today’s supermarkets employ a very similar business model: first, they sell us something we don’t need, with the goods wrapped in plastic, then they generously offer to take the plastic back at no expense to the consumer – so long as we’ve washed and sorted it thoroughly. They either recycle it or dump it (whichever is more profitable) and sell us some more.
The fundamental flaw is that they are using and abusing something that doesn’t belong to them by polluting the environment that sustains us all. The US Declaration of Independence reserves certain ‘inalienable rights’ for ‘all men’, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – none of which is possible without clean, fresh air, free from carcinogens, and non-toxic water to drink.
Recycling is wonderful, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
We all need to wake up and smell the pollution. We must insist that our governments legislate to stop the plastics producers and traders ruining the lives and health of our children and grandchildren. It is literally a matter of life and death.