The problem of plastic capitalism

We have to move away from plastic, and towards a true circular economy. This will only happen by pressure from consumers.

The problem with plastic

A 2017 study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that by 2050, Earth’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Already, there are huge, submerged, moving concentrations of waste in every one of the planet’s oceans, known as garbage patches.

Plastic does not readily biodegrade. The best the oceans can do is break plastics down into microplastics, and microplastics into smaller nanoplastics. These invisible particles remain in the water, creating the effect of a permanent petrochemical spill. They are ingested by marine life and birds. They enter the food chain, embedding themselves in flesh, and are increasingly being consumed by humans.

Plastic also pollutes land and the air. A huge amount of plastic waste ends up in landfill, but a paper from Water Research has demonstrated that “landfill isn’t the final sink of plastics, but a potential source of microplastics”. Plastics are ground down in landfill, and these smaller microplastic particles can be carried by the wind and breathed in by people and animals.

And yet …

Yet, despite the known damaging effects of this material, worldwide plastic production is growing. Much of the responsibility for this lies with just a handful of powerful corporations.

Drinks companies are among the worst offenders. It was revealed in 2019 that Coca-Cola alone produces about 108 billion plastic bottles, or 3 million tonnes of plastic, every year. This waste is entirely unnecessary. Beyond Coke and Pepsi, unnecessary plastic packaging of consumer items has become ubiquitous. Browse the shelves of any department store or supermarket, and you will find thousands of new plastics, ready to start their long lives polluting the world’s ecosystems.

“Packaging is important to capitalism,” Chris Williams argues in Ecology and Socialism. “It is part of convincing us that we have choices in the products we buy, as if each different brand were not in many cases identical aside from the packaging and the brand loyalty that packaging seeks to secure.”

The problem with the economy

The economy is organised through constant, unplanned competition between firms producing similar commodities. Excessive packaging is the result. As Williams explains, “Corporations resist reductions in packaging even when it might save them money (packaging costs can often be greater than the cost of the item itself)—because packaging persuades consumers to buy their product rather than someone else’s”. At the end of the day, the extra cost of packaging is passed on to those who buy the products. We pay: first through higher prices placed on packaged items, then through the degradation of the Earth systems upon which our lives depend.

Facing volatility in the oil sector, energy companies are pivoting towards accelerated plastic production as a source of future stability.

More immediately, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to plunging oil profits. One method for weathering the storm has been a race to make more plastic. This has created new challenges for plastic makers: an emergent glut of plastics in major markets, and a shortage of places to dump plastic waste. China’s 2018 ban on plastic waste imports is still a source of pain for many Western capitalists.

A circular economy

The oil companies have long put responsibility for the plastic problem onto the shoulders of consumers, telling them they must recycle and everything will be ok. But most plastic is not recycled twice – much of it is not even recycled once. And recycling plastic does more to promote the continued production of plastic than it does to mitigate its harmful environmental effects.

We need to move away from plastic, to more sustainable alternatives that can be endlessly cycled through a circular economy. We love our plant-based compostable bioplastics, which give nutrients back to the ground and provide food for a new generation of agriculture. It’s time to say no to plastics.


Information taken from RedFlag.

Read about recent plastic news, and 5 misconceptions around the plastic impact, on our blog.


Article by Tallis Baker

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