Talking About Things (in this case plastic) in an Age of Systemic Disinformation
I was invited to accompany a student at her school peer presentation, she had interviewed me in relation to environmental approach and zero waste. They sent me the slides that the student had prepared and that would provide the basis to our on-stage Q&A session. The following is a letter in reply to the school and the student’s parent who had been instrumental in inviting me.
This reply is in three parts.
1. The letter in response to the invitation.
2. An outline in brief of My approach to talking about plastic or any other subject with children, young people and adults.
3. And a more nuanced look About plastic
The reason for this detailed approach to a simple invitation (that ordinarily I find very hard to refuse) becomes clear as I respond to the content of the presentation.
Dear teacher, school and parent,
Thank you so much for inviting me to accompany your student during her presentation.
It is an honour and privilege to spend time with young people who are endeavouring to move ahead towards sustainability.
Before I start, I would like to thank the student as the presentation has inspired and prompted me to address it in a thoughtful and researched manner. She is a wonderful and intelligent young person and deserves a healthy planet to grow up upon. I believe she will be a strong advocate for all the best and right things.
It is also relevant to state here that her mum works in the plastic industry and in our discussions, it was made clear that she is an advocate for plastic use, including single use.
I’d like to explain what I think about the presentation.
NOTE: There is no need or validity in sharing this letter with the student and it is not a criticism of her!
I understand that the student who prepared this and her peers are around 12 years old, in my opinion the approach that best suits that age group must be inspiring, accessible and motivating. However here we have a presentation which seems to simply state facts and does not expect, desire or see a need for interaction, change or action.
The slides appear to present lots of information, but the information is provided in a way that is closed to comment or query, confusing and constantly underlines that plastic is the responsibility of the individual consumer. The underlying intention of the presentation seems to be revealed with these words: “Plastic is Not Harmful!!!!!!!” (that is a lot of exclamation marks for something that is quite obviously not as straight forward as that and is also not true.)
In fact, I can say that this presentation looks like something straight from a plastics industry propaganda manual.
Expanding the statement “Plastic is not harmful”:
Indeed, plastic is useful in many contexts and is even a lifesaving material. However, when dealing with the hugely complex subject of sustainability in relation to materials, waste, recycling and all the implications upon our present day system and economy as well as the short and long term planetary scale effects, then I find it best to invite critical and whole systems thinking rather than use a powerful and highly misleading statement to frame the discussion.
Knives are not harmful, they are very useful tools, and they are perfectly safe when handled with knowledge, skill and care and kept away from children.
Yet if we are to give every type of knife to every man, woman and child, if we distribute billions around the planet and leave them on beaches and in the woods and find mini versions in our food then we can expect many wounds.
Plastic is an amazing invention; it has made the impossible possible countless times and it saves lives daily in hospitals and health care around the world. Hygiene because of it has enabled billions of people to live longer and safer from infection.
Yet, there is a shadow side. For example millions who access mini packets of soap and shampoo (Sales strategy in Asia) have created a toxic pile of sachet waste that has circled around to make another, different and possibly worse problem instead.
Single use plastic in the hands of billions of people worldwide is not and can never be described as harmless.
It is evident that we are presently damaging our planet so badly that we are in danger of becoming extinct. The mindset that got us here, that is continuing to take us on this perilous and destructive journey is the same mindset that insists we know what we are doing and that we need to continue producing. We don’t!
Below I have stated some facts and shared some research about plastic which contradicts the statement that “plastic is not harmful”. I also respond with more nuance to the subjects of compostable, bio and biodegradable plastic and I draw attention to governmental, industrial and corporate responsibility and to plastics detriment to health all of which are absent in the presentation. I will add that I do not expect a child to have covered all this and done this much research for her presentation, my expectation though is that the adults create an environment of enquiry and curiosity which would have been evident in the presentation.
The instinct behind the presentation:
I expect that the presentation has been affected by discussion about plastic at home and I deeply respect what I imagine is the student’s mother’s instinct to defend her livelihood. This instinct comes from within the global culture that is competitive and does not nurture citizens or create a community that can depend upon each other.
This mindset and culture are a threat to our species and hinder our ability to find real solutions. However, I earnestly suggest that schools and all academic centres around the world pay attention to the details and resist allowing their schools to become platforms for detrimental industry such as global oil and plastics. And I suggest that schools should advocate clearly factual, nuanced and multi viewpoint projects and avoid agenda laden messages such as those blatantly apparent in this young person’s presentation.
When you consider the billions spent on the oil industry propaganda it is no wonder that I and those like me are a minority group and we are marginalised and made to seem like the enemy to the system. So, without any ambiguity I will state that yes, I am the enemy to the system if that system is bad for us and our planet and if the system is systematically lying and carrying on with business as usual. Economic goals of growth within the present exploitative paradigm are not acceptable ethically or sustainable upon a finite planet. I will endeavour for positive change in every arena possible while I have the strength and fortitude to do so, but I, and the many like me need a huge contribution of effort from everyone to prompt that change.
To be honest, after we collectively make the decision to embrace change, I think it will be easier than we think and less problematic than we fear.
Regarding the invitation:
So, if having read this (and the attachments below) you are willing to have me speak at your school (alongside the student or otherwise) then I will gladly accept your invitation and do my best to incite pro planet and pro solution activism in the hearts and minds of everyone who listens. I can also offer another possibility which is to sit in Circle with a group of students and teachers (maximum 20 people) to let us voice the present viewpoints. Note: this will not be a debate as debate does not bring about collective wisdom but tends to further entrench the sides, I offer instead to host ‘Council’ or ‘Circle’ which enables every participant to express their views and feelings. (I will share further details if you are interested in this approach.) However if you still think that it is fine to stand up in front of a school of young impressionable people and tell them that “Plastic is Harmless!!!!!!!” and if you expect me to back up that statement, then I’m very sorry to say that I must refuse your invitation.
I have a huge battle ahead of me, there are not many alongside fighting against the decisive, immensely and disproportionately wealthy and unscrupulous industry, so we must choose our battles wisely. I feel that unless schools are prepared to back objective and nuanced view and to take the side of planetary health then voices like mine will not be heard, and in which case I sincerely fear for the future of these kids.
I apologise for the length of this, and though it is just the tip of a huge iceberg I expect it has taken a chunk of your time to read it.
I hope that you will stand by me in standing by our planet.
With best wishes to all and for the health of our planet and all living things.
As one mother to another I send my love and my deep respect (no matter how much our views may differ).
My approach to talking about plastic, or any other subject, with children, young people and adults.
First, I try to limit the sharing of so-called facts, we do not know exactly what the damage of plastic is or is not, but we can know what our hearts and bodies tell us. Our bodies are also a part of nature and when toxic waste destroys habitats and whether it be a zooplankton or a giraffe that dies, inevitably we feel it too. So, it is time we started to listen more to our hearts, our bodies and our children. We must acknowledge that we are a generation of adults who have made global scale problems and been brainwashed into thinking we ‘need’ every convenience of this modern world.
When we listen to our bodies, we notice that we actively flinch when we see another plastic bottle, a broken toy, some polystyrene particles, bags and packets and all sorts strewn over the beautiful places that we love. We can’t bear to see it. We are disgusted by a wet wipe or a diaper, (also made of and packaged in plastic) which is a visible piece of rubbish that makes us feel sick, it is another’s perception of hygiene, yet it leaves planetary scale filth. We can also sense that which we can’t see like the chemical seepage and microscopic particles from our plastic fleece fabrics which are poisoning our planet and us too. (See here for everyday items that are made of plastic)
So instead of telling people what is and what isn’t and instead of exposing them to more brainwashing of our present linear, extractive, exploitative, consumer-based economy and system, I try to inspire them to open their minds and hearts and go think for themselves.
So, I ask you:
In the student’s presentation, what is gained, what is the purpose of it?
Has it given her or the children or even the teachers in the school an opportunity to learn, to grow and to feel capable of making a difference, has it empowered them with incentive and skills that will take them and our species to a better future? Is the knowledge presenting a fair representation of all the voices that can’t speak, such as the children, the fish, the fields, the mountains, the lakes and the air that we breathe?
Or does the presentation overwhelm with facts that confuse and dictate rather than raise the capacity to query, wonder and learn?
And does the presentation merely speak the words of a system that doesn’t want to face change?
Change is hard, true, and if your mum works at a plastics company it is not nice to think that what she makes is bad for the planet, it is not nice for a mum to try find new work when bills have to be paid and when plastics is still a growing industry and possibly the best paid job.
I have spoken to people in industry who acknowledge the need for change and evolution, shareholders, stakeholders, designers, engineers, management, staff and the marketing teams and everyone must consider what the end goal is, do we want to have the short term gratification of paid bills and more, or do we care about the planet, about the health of our children and of the future?
Neither can one child or mother or one plastics company manage to do everything alone, they could try, and they might manage individual change, but it should not be expected of them.
A multilateral and inclusive approach is essential if we are to consider alternatives to plastic.
New products, new packaging methods and new methods to provide healthy and hygienic products to consumers must be designed and implemented.
New ways of thinking as producers and consumers must be integrated into our way of life.
Our planet must be viewed with love and compassion rather than as an infinite source of resources which we abuse.
Materials that are extracted or created must be treated with utmost respect through minimum use, reuse, repair and highly effective recycling systems.
The perceived deficit of profit through the lack of new production must be solved by the implementation of a highly effective circular and equitable economy.
You may call this unrealistic, and indeed it is if we present kids with a vision of reality that is subliminally (possibly inadvertently) moulded by corporate interests. It will remain unrealistic if schools don’t use their standing as a place of learning to disrupt the single line of viewpoint and prompt enquiry and curiosity into what is and what can be.
If we as parents and teachers and schools don’t envisage a clean and fair world, and if we don’t allow the kids to think for themselves about new and better ways of being, if we continue to drown them with boring and distorted, one sided facts then indeed we will never ever see a sustainable future.
With kids I talk about:
Behaviour change, how we are capable of it
Collaboration and community and that we have been thriving because of it since the beginning of time
The competitive and hierarchical system is not the core human trait, we are capable of great things once we listen to our own curious minds, open hearts and we open our eyes and respond to what the world is asking of us.
I tell them that once they learn to feel what the planet and they themselves truly need then they no longer feel fixated by their screens and the distractions of modern day living and that the biggest adventure of all awaits us, that we may find a new way of being and that the vision of lies in us all, just waiting to come out to play, invent and to thrive together.
I tell them that what matters to them is what matters to the whole planet if only they will listen to their hearts.
I tell them that there is a story to everything, a product comes from somewhere, made by real people and using resources and energy and after the product is used up then it goes on to somewhere, it never disappears entirely and I remind them that everything we do, everything we buy has an impact.
Nothing goes unnoticed by our planet and it is time we started to notice her back.
It is time that we see how the old story is holding us back and now we can start telling a new story. And I tell them that they are the ones that will take this story onwards.
While I share these words and this vision with them I am deeply aware that we, as adults, are the ones to write the first pages of this story and if we do, the children will expand it and make it into something wonderful. These are the kind of words that I would tell a group of middle school kids.
When our children go to sleep at night are their dreams full of screen characters and computer games, do they dream of a new plastic toy or the snacks that they have become addicted to? Is this what we want for our children? Can a new way of being emerge from minds that are just told stuff without any form of critical thinking involved? Can a new generation of people emerge when we are brainwashing these kids to act as nothing more than the new generation of mindless consumers?
Can a child care about something if they are not actively engaged and if they haven’t been taught to be curious? Or can we open their minds so they can dream of freedom and adventure and a future for our species.
One of the worst phrases we use is “curiosity kills the cat”; curiosity is the core of discovery, adventure and survival, curious minds invented plastic and curious minds can find alternatives.
Returning to the statement that “plastic is not harmful”, these are some objections and aspects that need further consideration:
- Plastic has never been recycled to capacity (statistics state that less than 5% of ‘recyclable’ plastic has ever been recycled)
Plastic is not compostable (unless bioplastic which comes with other problems - see below)
Biodegradable plastic only becomes smaller particles of the compound which has bioaccumalative effects upon the planet, soil, water systems, livestock, plants and ultimately us.
The chemicals used in making plastic (even bioplastic) are often toxic.
The energy used in making even bioplastic and the carbon emissions are very high.
Plastic particles and effects can be found in the fish we eat, and the water we drink. No place is free of plastic from the Antarctic, the Amazon and the Alps, deep in the Mariana Trench and in our digestive tracts.
After many millennia it is likely that the only evidence of human existence upon the planet will be the layer of fossil fuel plastic and radiation that we have produced.
The most common rubbish found (worldwide including across the continent of Africa and up the Amazon River) is single use plastic.
If we only get rid of single use plastic, we will have a dramatic reduction in the pollution that plastic creates.
Products that are sold wrapped in single use plastic are often very unhealthy, such as: cola and other beverages including iced tea and many forms of fruit juice. Also, sweets, candy, biscuits, cakes, cookies, crackers, crisps. These products are not a benefit to the consumer, they are unhealthy, the ingredients are also often produced causing deforestation, they are imported products with very high carbon emissions and they contain sugars such as high fructose syrup that cause diabetes, heart disease and addiction.
Food and products that come in single use plastic can be sold without such packaging. This way of selling can be made more mainstream if we discontinue our reliance on single use convenience (some are doing so)
Consumer awareness and behaviour is shaped by a very dominant industry that intends to up plastic production and sales.
Better practices in some countries cannot balance the effects of the growing market around the world.
Consumers are addicted to plastic, the products and the convenient lifestyle, it is notoriously difficult to get addicts to change their behavior.
Recycling is not the solution...
The problem with recycling plastic:
Only certain types, so a very small amount of plastic can be recycled, much that is produced is not recyclable. Consumers are blamed for not separating the plastics but even in Europe consumers are ignorant and confused about which plastic can be recycled and they have been informed in a misleading manner. (For instance though styrofoam cannot be recycled consumers are encouraged to put into the recycling which gives them the false sense that Styrofoam is an ok product, likewise many in the US and Europe had no idea that their recycling was shipped to China and now, since China has closed their doors, is shipped to other less wealthy and regulated nations.) Though people are concerned and more aware about the detriment of plastic they are being encouraged to buy plastic and plastic packaged products constantly. This has led to an increase in the use of plastic as consumers believe recycling is effective.
The consumer alone cannot be made responsible for the irresponsibility of an industry.
In the presentation it is stated that there are “only two” problems with plastic, the first being the carbon emissions and the second problem is that people dispose of it incorrectly. This is not true.
It is impossible to solve the plastic problem with better consumer habits when we do not have sufficient recycling infrastructure (including in the UK, US and India for instance) It is also very difficult to curb consumption when the world population has been systematically manipulated to become completely reliant upon plastic and products that are plastic packaged. The billions of dollars that have been spent on the marketing of these products could have been spent on providing alternatives and the necessary infrastructure, however the lobby and power of the petrochemical industry ensured their immunity to pertinent review and regulations which would, no doubt, have resulted in severe restrictions being imposed upon plastic production worldwide.
So, I state that instead, the bulk of the responsibility lies with the producers, the industry and the governments who have benefited in monetary gain and acted in impunity.
More about recycling:
When it comes to producing new products from old plastic the reality is something like this:
Plastic recycling relies on approximately 98% virgin stock. Only 2% can go back to producing a similar product, a further 8% might go to cascaded recycling (lower quality products). Approximately 72% goes to landfill and leakage to the environment. (World Economic Forum 2016)
The diagram in the presentation that put glass, paper, tin and plastic products next to each other in terms of biodegrading and show unfavourably that glass takes thousands of years to biodegrade are misleading.
Glass can be recycled up to 100% and forever, it does not degrade in the process.
Yes, glass takes long to biodegrade, but during the process it is not harmful, does not release chemicals, is unlikely to cause strangulation or choking of or be ingested by animals, it is benign. The worse thing that glass (which hasn't been recycled) can do is:
1. Be a waste of a material (which is expensive and embodies resource and high energy consumption in the production).
2. Cause a fire through sun light reflection.
3. Cause cuts (if broken and exposed).
Paper (preferably non bleached and without ink) and tin can be composted and will return to organic material.
How many times can a product be recycled before it loses quality?
Plastic: 7 – 9 times (? This figure is generous by comparison to various reports)
Paper: 4 – 6 times as the fibres shorten.
Glass, steel and aluminium: endlessly.
(A lack of infrastructure means that despite the good recyclability of glass, aluminium and steel, they are often wasted)
I have included relevant statements below, please follow the links for detailed explanations and research.
Note about using plastic for energy via incineration:
This is a complicated subject that I won’t go into here. However the idea of using a product that is created at a huge expense to planetary health, that is then later incinerated also causing damage to the atmosphere simply so we can get rid of the shame of our plastic waste and continue to use too much energy (specifically in developed nations) is one that needs deep investigation with honest appraisal regarding our habits (regarding energy use) and our environmental practices.
What does Biodegradable really mean?
“The prefix “bio” can be very misleading: plastics do degrade, but not into something biological. It breaks into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic.” They also can’t be recycled.
What about Bioplastics and ‘compostable’ plastics?
“…while some bioplastics can be composted and do not harm the quality of compost, others leave toxic residues or plastic fragments behind, making them unsuitable if your compost is being used to grow food. Additionally, the use of plant material for bioplastics causes concern including the use of genetically modified crops, and the use of farmland that could be used to grow valuable food crops, deforestation, use of fresh water supplies, soil erosion, fertilizer use (which comes from petrochemical sources), food security and more.”
Biodegradable, bioplastic and compostable bags were tested in various conditions:
“After nine months in the open air, all of the bags had disintegrated or were beginning to come apart, mostly breaking down into microplastics. That’s because sunlight helps break down plastics through a process called photo-oxidation, in which the plastic becomes weathered and brittle, eventually fragmenting rather than breaking down to its organic components.”
“Anything that helps humankind solve the plastics problem has to be a good thing, right? Unfortunately, environmental issues are never quite so simple. Actions that seem to help the planet in obvious ways sometimes have major drawbacks and can do damage in other ways. It's important to see things in the round to understand whether "environmentally friendly" things are really doing more harm than good.”
For further info and research about this see:
The accumulative and bioaccumalative effect of plastic upon the macro and micro planetary system:
We know that everything upon the planet is linked; man-made materials have wide implications upon everything from the aquatic system, soil and crops and all living things.
It is somewhat easier to see and quantify the damage of plastic bags and larger plastic objects found in the gut of dead whales or cows, found strangling turtles and being fed from a parent bird to its young who both later starve or choke to death. However, we are still not sure what the long-term effect will be of this worldwide plastic event.
The “seventh continent’, are islands of plastic in the North Pacific Ocean and 3.4 million km2 (4 times the size of Turkey) and we cannot comprehend the devastation that this is already having. We do know however that the gyres of the oceans, the rivers and the entire water system of our planet is an essential part of the ecosystem, climate control and the biosphere that keeps this planet habitable for us and our fellow creatures. We also know that waste from landfill, from dumped trash, from ineffective recycling and from all over is spread in every part of the world and is in such huge quantities that we cannot ignore it.
This is the visible plastic, then there are the invisible kinds:
We do not know exactly how dangerous plastic is when in micro particle form or seeped as released chemicals.
Below are some research articles that have investigated these effects.
“The researchers conclude that, although little research has been carried out in this area, the results to date are concerning: fragments of plastic are present practically all over the world and can trigger many kinds of adverse effects.
The study estimates that one third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater. Most of this plastic disintegrates into particles smaller than five millimetres, known as microplastics, and these break down further into nanoparticles (less than 0.1 micrometre in size). The problem is that these particles are entering the food chain.”
“…the formation of preneoplastic and neoplastic lesions observed in fish from the virgin- and marine-plastic treatments are likely related to the plastic.”
“…future assessments regarding hazards associated with plastic in aquatic habitats should consider the complex mixture associated with aquatic plastic debris.”
“Meanwhile the waste we generate globally is accumulating faster than urbanization, …..Thus, it is time to implement more extensive research that can result in effective policy and management including the invention of materials that are sustainable and safe for people, the environment and wildlife.”
“…it would seem wise to assume that measures that can limit or avoid intakes of microplastics would be an appropriate and important priority for public policy.”
“Although microplastics are widely studied in the context of the marine environment where they are a proliﬁc pollutant, we are only just recognizing the potential human exposure pathways….
Following exposure, via diet and/or inhalation, uptake is plausible…. Toxicity is via inﬂammation due to the biopersistent nature of microplastics, and their unique hydrophobicity and surface chemistry. Toxicity is likely to have an accumulative eﬀect, dependent on dose.”
“Plastics in aquatic systems contain chemicals originating from the plastic material, chemicals added during the manufacturing process, as well as organic chemicals, metals, and other contaminants sorbed from the water column…. Given that many of these chemicals have been found to have harmful effects once in the aquatic environment, the potential toxicological impacts of these chemicals associated with plastic once ingested by aquatic organisms and aquatic-dependent wildlife is an area of concern.”
The economics of Plastic:
There is so much to write here, but I will suffice with one quote and a great link.
If is money that we are worried about let us consider this:
“The plastic industry’s damage to the planet is vast, but not immeasurable. In fact, the industry has published a detailed accounting that reveals its pollution is on pace to cause trillions in environmental harm by midcentury.”
If you do nothing else, READ THE ARTICLE ABOVE! Read it now, and then let’s talk about plastic!
And the verdict?
“Whether we’re talking conventional plastics or bioplastics, there’s nothing green or sustainable about using these materials for a matter of minutes and then throwing it away. Whilst bioplastics may have the potential to be composted and decrease the landfill burden, their manufacture and transportation is still hugely dependent on fossil fuels, and they still contain undeclared additives that may leach into our food, or our soils. The reality is that most of these bioplastics don’t end up in composting facilities, but head to straight to landfill, or worse, end up as litter.
If you truly want to be sustainable, don’t use plastic, and don’t use bioplastics either, especially for single-use disposable items.”
This quote is from an excellent article (link below) that explains the whole plastic thing very clearly.
Having established that plastic is not sustainable especially when used in the single use context and at such huge capacity we are then forced to look for alternatives.
These are some questions that we can ask:
· What are the alternatives to fossil fuel plastic?
Is bioplastic a real alternative to fossil fuel plastic, what are the risks?
What are the most optimum key ingredients to bio plastic and how can these be farmed without causing environmental damage?
How can we provide systems and infrastructure for food and product to be sold without single use packaging (of any kind)?
How can the industry and public feel connected and incentivised to act responsibly regarding this?
What can the established plastic production factories do instead?
How can the workforce be sustained during transition to new products or business?
How can we clean up the existing plastic?
How can community and culture adapt to change and sustainable practices?
What are the possible methods that can be used to have us (producers and consumers) cut back on plastic use?
Legislation to make ‘ecocide’ an international crime?(read about the movement to have ecocide recognised as a crime)
Tax on plastic?
Collection regulations and responsibility imposed upon producers?
Community building, sharing and local empowerment?
And many more such questions.
This is a brief delve into the story of plastic.
It is up to us to decide how the story will continue. Let us not forget that we control it, it does not control us. The priority is not the wealth of certain industries and their owners and shareholders, our priority and our happiness and survival lie in planetary scale health.