– This spring, I taught a brand new undergraduate course in environmental sociology. Most of my college students took the course as a result of they had been curious to see what their want to reside extra sustainably needed to do with sociology.
By the third week – after a deep dive into the troubling connections between fossil capitalism (the dependence of capitalism on fossil fuels), waste colonialism (the unjust worldwide commerce and disposal of hazardous waste between nations) and environmental injustice – just a few college students stated glumly that they’d thought the course could be extra optimistic.
Through the fourth week, we explored the well-documented historical past of climate denial and deception amongst fossil gasoline corporations, in addition to the associated “deceit and denial” ways of the tobacco, lead and chemical industries. “Do you suppose it’s actually true?” one scholar requested me imploringly. “Do you suppose that companies are actually that unsustainable and can by no means change?”
I hesitated. I needed my college students to think about complicated environmental issues from a important sociological perspective, however I didn’t need to lead them down a pessimistic path. “Nicely,” I admitted, “I did simply write a book in regards to the plastics trade with the subtitle ‘how firms are fuelling the ecological disaster and what we will do about it’”.
It’s exhausting to keep away from pessimism if you witness firsthand the obstinacy of socially and environmentally damaging industries. Early in 2019, I attended a plastics trade convention within the wake of the marine plastic crisis, prompted by public outrage over viral pictures of marine wildlife choking on plastic. The disaster prompted a swift response from plastic-related firms, who tried to border the issue when it comes to littering and waste quite than overproduction. “We have to get the picture of plastic within the oceans out of the general public’s thoughts,” exclaimed a company govt on the convention. “We have to make plastic improbable once more.”
Because the dramatic rise of plastic manufacturing the world over after the second world war, petrochemical and plastics corporations have fought to develop and defend their markets by creating demand for plastic merchandise, denying poisonous dangers and shifting blame for air pollution onto customers. And regardless of rising public consciousness of (and rules on) plastic pollution, the worldwide plastic disaster is barely getting worse.
My new e-book, Plastic Unlimited, sheds gentle on the company roots of this disaster. In it, I tackle the idea of the “company playbook” utilized by big oil, big tobacco, and, extra just lately, big plastic.
The corporate playbook typically accommodates a standard repertoire of methods utilized by controversial industries to hide or forged doubt on the dangerous results of their merchandise. Champions of those methods have been dubbed “merchants of doubt” and accused of offences from downplaying the well being dangers of smoking to funding local weather change denial.
As researcher David Michaels wrote in his exposé Doubt is Their Product, “the manipulation of science by the plastics trade was no less than as flagrant and as self-serving as some other trade” he had researched – together with the tobacco trade. Michaels was referring to the vinyl chloride scandals of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, when main chemical corporations conspired to cover proof in regards to the poisonous well being results of the vinyl chloride monomer on staff in chemical crops.
Massive trade’s monitor report continues in the present day. It has denied the toxic hazards of myriad petrochemicals and plastic merchandise, funded climate misinformation campaigns, misled the general public in regards to the effectiveness of recycling, and lobbied to thwart and delay environmental rules. Through the pandemic, it additionally lobbied to advertise single-use plastic baggage because the “sanitary choice”.
Main firms additionally use offensive ways, together with directing consideration to their function as so-called innovators in inexperienced tech. Take the circular economy, for instance. It appears like an ideal thought to attempt to eliminate waste by shifting from a linear “take-make-waste” financial system to 1 wherein present supplies are reused for so long as attainable. However, crucially, no international or nationwide coverage visions of a round financial system for plastics go as far as to name for limiting plastic production altogether.
The truth is, the plastics trade promotes the weakest type of the round financial system – recycling – which implies plastic production can preserve going, regardless of the reality that almost all objects going right into a recycling bin will find yourself being burned or dumped.
What’s extra, recycling makes use of plenty of power. Chemical recycling, as an example, entails returning plastics to their authentic molecular states for use once more. Though it’s promoted as an answer to the plastic disaster, it’s a poisonous, carbon-intensive course of that’s successfully the identical as incineration.
Right here’s some excellent news: in March 2022, the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi agreed on a mandate for a new global treaty to handle the crisis. This was a landmark achievement in the direction of creating legally binding measures to stop poisonous plastic air pollution.
Many scientists, activists and organisations insist that any ensuing treaty should embody a cap on plastic production. The negotiations will probably be difficult, nevertheless, given companies’ vested interests in maintaining rules targeted on waste quite than manufacturing. Now, it’s pressing that we push again towards greenwashing and work in the direction of a worldwide mandate for limiting unsustainable plastics progress.