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.