Jim Moody reviews Deia Schlosberg’s The story of plastic
Near the beginning of this documentary is the statement, “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” And that is certainly the problem documented here. From Indonesia to the Philippines to India, mountains of discarded plastic are despoiling rivers and the countryside - and, of course, finding their way into the oceans, of which our world largely consists - affecting us all. But these are only the effects evident at the very end of the plastics chain.
Experts, including those involved in recycling, explain that there is no way most plastic can be recycled - only around two percent can be: that is, converted into reusable plastic feedstock to make more plastic (though even then only once). One campaigner shown in the film likens plastic recycling to using a spoon to bail out a bath, while both taps are on. Plastic ends up dumped in landfill, scattered willy-nilly on river banks or in the seas and oceans, or burnt. It is not surprising that scepticism reigns among activists over labels on plastic bottles that claim they are “recyclable”.
The public relations thrust of the petrochemicals business, which supplies the process feedstock for plastics production, and plastics manufacturers particularly, is to shift public focus firmly onto waste only. That is why we have seen in the last few years massive coverage of the gigantic swirls (gyres) of plastic in the oceans and mounds of the stuff washed up on far-flung sunny beaches. That has largely succeeded in diverting attention into clean-up campaigns, into thinking only about how to ‘manage’ plastic waste better. These capitalists’ mantra has become: ‘There is nothing wrong with the product.’ But that is patently untrue on the evidence presented by the filmmakers.
Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, amongst other countries, have been inundated since January 2018 - when China implemented its ‘National Sword’ policy and stopped taking half the world’s ‘recyclable waste’, which it had done for 25 years. Capitalists in China immediately abandoned well-developed facilities there and hastily set up operations in countries without anywhere near the combined capacity that had existed in China. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of those who live near landfill sites in India is drastically reduced. According to this documentary, it has been cut by 15-20 years for those around Ghazipur Landfill, with its 13 million-tonne plastics mountain, which takes half of Delhi’s waste.
Hand-picking through dumped plastics waste (‘exported for recycling’) in Indonesia or the Philippines, or domestically within India, means poverty wages and obvious health risks for the workers involved in this labour, who are mostly women. Any plastic items that cannot be bundled into recycling bales are burnt in the open air or sent to large incineration plants, which have been operating there for some time, as they have in the west, and are now opening in new territories. The social cost of promised electricity generation from industrial incineration is the emission of carcinogens and other chemical compounds deleterious to health. Those living or working near the Okhla plant outside Delhi, which burns 2,000 tonnes daily, report widespread chronic chest ailments from hormone disruptors and carcinogens.
No-one can escape these plants, as they are everywhere in the world: Britain’s biggest waste incinerator in north London lies within the M25 motorway and, wonderfully inappositely, is now named ‘Edmonton EcoPark’. There are no safe levels for emissions from these plants of such poisons as arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals, as well as carcinogenic and teratogenic dioxins. Burning rubbish, in which plastics blaze, also obviously adds to the atmospheric CO2 burden, helping to accelerate climate change. Even worse, incinerators must keep operating and need relentless feeding with waste, including more and more plastic; for that reason plastic waste-pickers are constantly chased away from them in India.
Despite the American Chemistry Council (ACC) castigating ‘bad management’ of plastic waste by local authorities and blaming them for pollution worldwide, this film shows that the manufacture and marketing of plastics is fully responsible for the array of pollution. The ACC - the association representing US chemical and plastics companies - has fought tooth and nail to prevent bans on single-use plastic bags, now adopted by several US states. Film interviewees make clear that it is companies like these that make the one-trip plastics strangling wildlife and undermining the health and wellbeing of all of us throughout the world.
Fracking is an integral part of the petrochemical industry’s development, and goes on apace in the USA, where benzene, toluene and other noxious agents are spewed into the environment, including water tables. A campaign in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, is currently opposing the construction of a pipeline carrying plastic feedstock through farmland and forests - a ‘chemical corridor’ taking it to the coast for onward transport by sea to the Ineos plant at Grangemouth, Scotland. There is an ever-present danger of pipeline explosion, affecting people living inside the recognised 300-metre blast zone. Yet another degradation of the environment.
Refineries continue to be hazardous for those who live or work near them. Valero in Texas is a case in point - the nearby Lavaca Bay is peppered with natural gas and oil wells - as well as the plastics factories of Union Carbide, Du Pont and Formosa Plastics Corporation. As a result, local childhood cancers are now ‘normal’. Fishermen find nurdles (pellet raw material for making plastic goods) everywhere they cast a net or a line. After one activist’s dog was shot from an oil company helicopter, she got the message and toned down her opposition. That is bourgeois ‘democracy’ for you.
With the likelihood that fossil-fuel use by internal-combustion-engine transport and for power generation will reduce over coming decades due to government legislation, the petrochemical industry has been resetting itself. Even if those uses are closed to crude oil and gas extraction, there will be no let-up in pumping the stuff, including by means of fracking, but instead companies will utilise oil and gas condensate to manufacture … ever more plastics. The result of this move to reposition by the oil and gas companies, which is already in train, will be to greatly increase production of one-trip and all other non-recyclable plastic.
This capitalist world which we inhabit promotes unbridled rapacity to exploit natural resources and utilise extracted materials to manufacture the most profitable products to the detriment of humanity. While we fight to stall and hold back these companies in one direction, they push through in another. Fully democratic opposition to how they operate in the pursuit of profit - what else do they exist for? - has to include the aim and prospect of socialism, replacing this despoiling, destructive capitalist social system.
There are several campaigns against plastic pollution.1 However, given the bourgeois state’s role in preserving its social system, whatever is fought for and won is a temporary victory constantly under threat, and has to be defended and frequently rewon. But this film presents us with material to go further than protest, if we are willing and able.
Eg, the Plastic Pollution Coalition (plasticpollutioncoalition.org) and Break Free From Plastic (breakfreefromplastic.org/steering-committee).↩︎