Climate of Crisis: The plastic comeback

In the first of a new mini series navigating climate and Covid-19, journalist Lucy Siegle explores an eco-identity crisis and how plastic is staging a reputational comeback.

Is anyone else having an eco identity crisis right now? You know, just to layer on top of Covid-19 and the climate crisis?

I am. It involves plastic. Following the massive public awakening that followed Blue Planet II and the realisation that 8-12 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s ocean systems each day, millions began to view the plastic industry (99 per cent of which is linked to conventional oil extraction) in a clear-eyed honest way.

But now the beach cleans are stopped, and plastic is staging a reputational comeback. The packaging industry (of which the plastic industry is a major component) is pushing hard behind the scenes as you may imagine. As an example EUROPEN, the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment, has been lobbying for raw materials for packing to come through the designated priority lanes coming into the EU. 

Because not all heroes wear capes. In these long and unsettling days of Covid-19, they largely come shrouded in masks, hazmat suits and latex gloves (PPE supplies permitting). Even if we’re not on the frontline, the desire to shroud and wrap naturally transfers to crisis shopping baskets; bleach, wipes, the heat-sealed plastic food packets and swaddled loo rolls (if you can get any).

These in turn become the hero products of our hour. Single use, disposable and multi layered packaging that needs to be prised open with scissors, offers comfort. We feel protected. The psychology isn’t hard, is it?

I can’t help but wonder, as I reach for a plastic single use glove to use the petrol pump – in peace time I would be very angry about someone doing this – how far will that rehabilitation go? After all of this, will the shrink-wrapped coconut (my own particular long-term nemesis) be paraded through the streets, hailed as a Covid-19 hero?

At this point we need to check in with our first principles. The primary thing these materials and designs (I’m thinking of the multi layered pouch here) really protect is our fragmented and pressurised supply chains, where the true cost is externalised.

It might be the only available response this time, but that’s because, as is often explored in Wicked Leeks, the food supply chain is not built on anything approaching Earth logic and is fantastically out of kilter with the way ecosystems operate. That’s another urgent conversation we will need to have, after this.

Plastic comes with a huge cost. It has an impact at every stage of its production and use and it cannot be disappeared. Granted it’s useful in an emergency, but crisis materials can’t be everyday materials, unless we live perennially in a crisis. Our gains come at another community’s loss; many epidemiologists suggest that plastic waste in countries such as Indonesia (a frequent recipient of our plastic waste) could act as a vector for infectious diseases such dengue, Zika and malaria.

It is a hard thing to balance your cherished eco principles when you can’t necessarily action them or advocate for them. At the moment we must surrender to the reality of where we are right now.

You might need to use a wipe (please do not flush these), or a single use glove to protect yourself. You couldn’t reduce, you cannot reuse and you can’t recycle it – only nine per cent of plastic is recycled globally in normal times anyway. And it may end up being incinerated or put into landfill, which you will hate.

But don’t give up on the principles. They are hard won, they are on the money and they will be needed. The phrase or idea that keeps popping into my head is one coined by author and academic Donna Haraway and it means ‘committing to the difficult, uncompromising task of trying to live better together on a damaged planet’, and staying true to the types of thinking that will build a more liveable future. What I’m saying is we need to stay with the trouble, through the trouble.

I would love to hear from you if you’ve got any questions that you’d like me to answer in this column. Drop me a line on @lucysiegle #ClimateofCrisis #WickedLeeks, or comment below. 


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  1. “unless we live perennially in a crisis. ”
    That is the government’s plan, or rather the corporations behind them. Disaster Capitalism as Naiomi Klein calls it, relishes disasters such as the current one, as they use it to push through otherwise unpopular moves. That a lot of people might die as a consequence matters little to the Cummings entourage. I can forsee a post Covid-19 UK where suddenly all the schools become fee-paying, because they genuinely think education is wasted on the poor.

    The crisis does, of course, highlight the absurdity of the current system, where imported food-pickers were Prithi Patel’s despised “unskilled migrant labour” and are now suddenly “essential workers.” Because even evil people and their sycophants in the MSM need to eat.

    As you say, the food system in the UK is built on ridiculous principles, the just-in-time supply system that has been found wanting this last week. The example of the egg cartons is a classic>

    As the lorry drivers and freight aircraft pilots bringing in our food go off sick in the next fortnight, it will be put even further to the test.

    Plastic? It will never go away until the fossil fuel industry is shut down. Plastic is a by-product of the oil refinery business. If they hadn’t found a use for it, there would be literally mountains of black gooey mess stacked up outside every refinery in the world. By refining that waste into semi-useful products, they have simply spread the waste evenly over the planet instead of having it stacked up in a few places, and made a good showing for shareholders to boot.

    That does we have to realise, lead to what looks to be the subject of your next article, which is energy use. At some point, either by design or disaster, we will have to get used to limited amounts of energy being available. Certainly not 24/7, and certainly not unlimited right to roam in personal vehicles/planes. Which then links into how we grow our food. I’ve just commented on the blog post about food pickers being required, but of thousands of Uk applicants, very few are suitably located. As part of the Incredible Edible Network, I am a keen advocate of urban food growing, and this recruitment crisis shows why. Which then links into land use, and how in both rural and urban areas it is very politically guarded, primarily in favour of GDP rather than bio-diversity.

    The current crisis is a good moment to look at these future crises directly in the eye, as Jem Bendell would have us do, and use that moment to re-imagine how our world could be a better place, not just for humans, but for all that is left of nature.

  2. While acknowledging the big issues that the article and Mark’s response highlight, I don’t believe that those committed to reducing their plastic use have to abandon their principles in the midst of the crisis. We can still use natural-fibre cloths and wash them frequently; we can wash our hands and not touch our faces in between without donning plastic gloves; we can still buy dried goods from unpackaged stores that will pack them up for us in paper bags (with appropriate use of hand sanitiser from large refill packs between customers), as my local one is doing. We can wash our mobile phones with washing-up liquid from large 5 litre refills. It’s not perfect, but the general public at home – though not at the moment, for obvious reasons, the medical profession – can still reduce our use of plastic.

  3. I agree. We can still stick to our green principles to a large extent during this crisis. I am pleased I already had my fruit and veg covered by Riverford for instance. I have my milk delivered by a milkman and I already had an ongoing order with the ethical loo paper supplier ‘who gives a crap’. I make my own yoghurt and hummus to avoid buying plastic. I always make my own coffee to take with me as well as a bottle of water wherever I go. What i have noticed since Covid is a lot more people buying water in plastic bottles and a lot of people walking around wearing plastic gloves which seems counter-intuitive to me. Surely tap water is safer than bottled and better regulated. Plastic gloves don’t make you immune from Covid. I watched an ice-cream seller a few days ago (just before lock down for instance) serving an ice cream cone with blue gloves, then sending some text messages on his phone wearing the same gloves, before serving someone the next ice cream!


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