People are declaring a waste emergency. The calamitous build-up of plastic waste is an obvious, documented, provable catastrophe unfolding outside our very window, in our waterways and soils, and even in the accumulation of microplastics and poisons in our bodies.
The government remains committed, according to their own words, to ending avoidable plastic by 2042. This target is entirely notional. It is like telling your doctor you will stop smoking in 15 years. By then, the damage will be so much worse.
The amount of plastic waste per human in the UK is 99kg – about two fourteen year olds per person, per year. Only the USA uses more than us.
At present, we are exporting 60% of our plastic packaging waste. We have vast quantities of plastic waste piling up from packaging, construction, homeware, and numerous other sources. We have car tyres which are being ground up and made into poisonous infill, or shipped across the world to be burned as dirty fuel, or to foist upon poorer countries. The oceans are filling with plastic and microplastic at such an alarming rate there will soon be more of it by weight in them than aquatic life.
Our plastic is poisoning us by entering our blood, our waterways, our soil, and our food. Toxic chemicals from PFAS to PAHs, Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are accumulating in the environment and our bodies. Microplastics have infiltrated every corner of the Earth and have passed the tissue barrier in our organs.
But the ugly truth is that the worst impact of all of this toxicity is not on us but on the Global South. Our exports, which primarily end up being trafficked through Europe to countries in SE Asia and Turkey are being systematically mismanaged. This is colonialism in the 21st century: the very countries we exploit for mineral and food wealth are being duped into being our dustbin, as well.
Even when our plastic waste is not being trafficked, there is no good end-of-life solution for it. As soon as plastic is created, the damage has been done. A vast industry exists to pretend that there is a solution while the material is laundered through a baffling array of false solutions, including:
When it comes to plastic waste, there are no easy solutions. We have to acknowledge this. We have to acknowledge the giant mountain outside our very window.
The plastic emergency is already causing quantifiable harms to our own UK population, and to others worldwide. When the UK government said it would refuse to follow its own, Conservative-led EFRA committee and give a roadmap to a ban on plastic waste exports, they were shirking a clear and pressing responsibility.
Until they take they take that responsibility, there will not be sufficient momentum to move towards the solutions. They include:
see p. 18, Zero Waste Cities - Masterplan
It is up to us as citizens to point at the mountain at our window. It is up to us to start raising the alarm. Government and industry cannot fail to listen when the health and longevity of every person on Earth is at stake.