Welcome to the world of the plastic beach

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Polluted beach on the Red Sea, Egypt

Modern capitalism’s throwaway society has created a crisis in the oceans. We must put blame where it’s due.

The BBC’s recent documentary series Blue Planet II, presented by David Attenborough, has kept viewers transfixed with its portrayal of the stunning diversity of wildlife in the oceans. It has also highlighted one of the world’s biggest environmental threats — plastic pollution.

The amount of rubbish in the seas is a sign of the influence humans are having on the world. Although plastic was invented less than 100 years ago, there is now nearly 270,000 tonnes in the oceans. It is so ubiquitous that it is found even in some of the most remote areas; scientists have found carrier bags on the slopes of the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the pacific. Albatross chicks in the Antarctic have been coughing it up.

Marine plastic ranges from large items that can strangle or choke seals and sea turtles to microplastics including fibres from synthetic clothing. Microplastics can be mistaken for food and eaten by small animals which are then eaten in large numbers by predators leading to a build-up of plastics in their bodies. Some plastic releases toxins as it breaks down acting like a magnet attracting other oily pollutants.

A recent study found plastic microparticles in tap water with the highest levels of contamination in the US, Lebanon and India. Plastic can also be consumed by humans in seafood, a particular problem in parts of the world where communities rely on fishing.

How did we get into this situation? As Ian Angus explains in his book A Redder Shade of Green, the plastics industry has achieved some of its greatest success producing disposable packaging. Although one of the advantages of plastic is that it lasts for a very long time, ironically it is now often used for items that are used once and thrown away. A third of the plastic produced each year is used in disposable packaging such as carrier bags, bottles, cutlery and bubble wrap. The transition from using easily reusable or recyclable packaging to plastic has been remarkably quick. As Angus points out, major supermarkets didn’t start using plastic bags until the 1980s.

Although some items are recycled, up to 80 percent of the plastic produced so far has gone into landfill or been illegally dumped. When plastic gets into the oceans it degrades extremely slowly. A Styrofoam coffee cup takes an estimated 50 years to decompose; it is 450 years for a nappy or a plastic bottle.

There are lots of ideas being proposed to try to stem the growing tide of plastic waste. In the UK the 5p charge for a plastic bag, introduced in October 2015, has dramatically reduced the numbers used. Kenya, which is particularly affected by plastic pollution on beaches, has banned plastic bags completely. In Bristol the water supplier has installed fountains in the town centre so people can refill their water bottle for free and a similar scheme has been proposed for London.

Deposit return schemes, where a small refundable deposit is added to the price of a bottle and people can return them to the store, are in place in Germany, Sweden and Denmark. They are already a feature of big events such as music festivals in the UK. These schemes show that consumers will switch to alternatives to plastic if they are made available.

However, plastic manufacturers will use their lobbying power to try to prevent even modest anti-pollution measures. The Kenya Association of Manufacturers complained that, without plastic bags, businesses would close, jobs would be lost and market traders would lose out as people wouldn’t be able to carry their fruit and vegetables home. In fact, Kenyans are already starting to use reusable cloth bags.

Leaked internal documents seen by Greenpeace last year showed that Coca-Cola, with sales of 100 billion plastic bottles per year, had (until a recent U-turn), been lobbying politicians against deposit return schemes. Companies like Coca-Cola have a huge vested interest in convincing us to buy more bottled drinks. Disposable packaging has enabled them to outcompete smaller local firms and enabled the packaging companies themselves to sell their product over and over again.

The food and drinks giants also have a long track record of blaming consumer behaviour for pollution. As Martin Empson explains in Land and Labour, food and drinks companies poured money into campaigns like Keep America Beautiful. This deflected blame onto “litter bugs” and away from themselves. Socialists should reject this argument that the problem is caused by ignorant or wasteful consumers.

We should also avoid the false argument that jobs will be lost if we use less plastic packaging. Coca-Cola is notorious for its attacks on trade unions and is also (predictably) lobbying against taxes on sugary foods. It is hard to take seriously that the company has the needs of either its workers or consumers at heart when it opposes recycling schemes.

The massive increase in disposable packaging over the last few decades has its origins in the needs of bosses to make a profit. As Coca-Cola say itself, packaging is “essential for our business”.

A real solution to the plastic problem will need to hit the profits of these multinationals.