Plastic is everywhere, and suddenly we have decided that is a very bad thing.
Until recently, plastic enjoyed a sort of anonymity in ubiquity: we were so thoroughly surrounded that we hardly noticed it. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that today’s cars and planes are, by volume, about 50% plastic. More clothing is made out of polyester and nylon, both plastics, than cotton or wool. Plastic is also used in minute quantities as an adhesive to seal the vast majority of the 60bn teabags used in Britain each year.
Add this to the more obvious expanse of toys, household bric-a-brac and consumer packaging, and the extent of plastic’s
clear. It is the colourful yet banal background material of modern life. Each year, the world produces around 340m tonnes of the stuff, enough to fill every skyscraper in New York City. Humankind has produced unfathomable quantities of plastic for decades, first passing the 100m tonne mark in the early 1990s. But for some reason it is only very recently that people have really begun to care.
In 2016, a Greenpeace petition for a UK-wide plastic microbead ban hit 365,000 signatures in just four months, eventually becoming the largest environmental petition ever presented to government.
Protest groups from the US to South Korea have dumped piles of what they say is unwanted and excessive plastic packaging at supermarkets. Earlier this year, angry customers in the UK posted so many crisp packets back to their manufacturers, in protest at the fact they weren’t recyclable, that the postal service was overwhelmed. Prince Charles has given speeches about the dangers of plastic, while Kim Kardashian has posted on Instagram about the “plastic crisis”, and claims to have given up straws.
At the highest levels of government the plastic panic can resemble a scrambled response to a natural disaster, or a public health crisis. The United Nations has declared a “war” on single-use plastic. In Britain, Theresa May has called it a “scourge”, and committed the government to a 25-year plan that would phase out disposable packaging by 2042.
India claimed it would do the same, but by 2022.