So I was genuinely shocked this week to read reports that 99% of all seabirds are likely to swallow plastic dumped into the oceans. I was even more shocked to discover that the problem isn't getting better - it is getting worse quickly. As much plastic is due to be manufactured in the next 10 years as has been made since 1950. Production doubles every 11 years.
This information doesn't come from a speculative comment piece. It is hard science coming from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. See http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/08/27/1502108112.abstract?sid=5a6e5a34-90bc-4183-b89c-ea4210a44377
It is well known that the trouble with plastic is that it is easy and cheap to produce but difficult and costly to get rid of and not likely to biodegrade. So what we do now is going to be our legacy for the next thousand years or so.
As the world population gets larger it is also getting richer. Unlike some environmentalists I don't have a problem over people getting richer and consuming more. I have travelled through enough dirt poor countries and seen the standard of living that others are expected to survive on to be convinced that a very large number of people really do need the ability to consume an awful lot more if they are going to live happy and healthy lives. But consumption doesn't have to mean damaging consumption.
The downside comes from the fact that both in producing what they need and in consuming it we are being driven by the cheapest individual cost right now not by the cost to the collective or to the future. Since it is cheap and easy to make a lot of things out of plastic it is inevitable that as we lift more people out of poverty they are going to consume a great deal more plastic and throw it away.
Or rather it is inevitable if we continue to produce and consume in the same way. The vast majority of plastic that is produced is not actually necessary for an increase in the standard of our living. It is packaging or it has perfectly good alternatives that can be used instead. There is no problem with people across the third world clawing their way out of poverty. Indeed it is highly positive. The problem is that there is an absence of suitable regulation, control and subsidy to influence how manufacturers produce and how people consume. It is not possible for so many people to get richer and for the free market to operate without the real costs of decisions being applied at the time that those decisions are made. Put simply we need a strong and effective network of global taxes, laws and incentives to turn people away from choices that mess up the planet and to help them choose alternatives which are just as good but not destructive.
This sounds incredibly hard to do because of course it is. But like all problems not being able to tackle the totality doesn't mean that nothing can be done. The crucial point is to get started and to change the direction of development.
To give one simple example. Most face creams are made with tiny abrasive particles which help to clean the skin. Many of these products use tiny plastic particles because they are a touch cheaper to make than gritty natural alternatives. The hundreds of thousands of particles in one jar wash off your face and go straight into the drains and then the sea. They are so small that they are not visible to the naked human eye. They are visible to plankton. These creatures that are vital to the entire planets eco system, and which exist in numbers that go into trillions of trillions, are attracted to eat the plastic particles. No one knows the full impact of this on the food chain but we do know that any negative impact on plankton is really bad news for the entire planet. It would be ludicrously easy for manufacturers to move away from using plastic particles in face cream in comparison to the damage done. It ought to be possible to get international agreement on banning plastic particles from such products.
For many other products an easy and cheap alternative is harder to find. Nevertheless this is going to have to be done sooner or later. It would be better for British manufacturers if they were part of the sooner camp and were being heavily helped and encouraged to research new clean technologies, learn environmentally sound techniques and apply them in the production process effectively and competitively. This requires serious financial assistance from government. Investment doesn't come cheap but the countries and the companies that do well in the world tend to be those who have invested early in adapting to change.
The first step to moving away from mass plastic consumption is therefore to accept two unavoidable necessities. One is that we have to control and guide the free market. The other is that we have to become better at developing and implementing internationally enforceable environmental laws. It will be very difficult to do this without destroying the creativity of the free market or establishing a stultifying international bureaucracy. But that is what needs to be done. I do not want to live in the old Soviet Union and, much as I support the EU in principle, I do not want to reproduce its slow clumsy decision making processes across an entire planet.
But there is no escaping the necessity of a major intellectual change. We have to move beyond a blind faith that an unfettered free market will always and on every occasion sort out our problems. I leave you to your own judgement call as to how well the UK's government is shaping up in response to that crucial challenge!