Alice Mah tells Chris Seekings how plastics and chemical companies are taking control of the circular economy narrative
The plastic waste crisis has fallen slightly off the radar in recent years, with manufacturers ramping up production of vaccine packaging, face masks and other PPE equipment to keep people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this has been important, the issue has not gone away and the volume of plastic waste produced for unnecessary single-use products continues to rise, despite growing awareness of the environmental damage they cause.
In her new book Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations Are Fuelling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It, Dr Alice Mah, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, shines a light on how petrochemical and plastics corporations have driven demand for plastic while deflecting attention from the key solution: bringing down its production.
Why did you first start researching the drivers behind the plastic crisis?
My original doctoral research was on the long-term impacts of deindustrialisation on old industrial communities, and I became interested in the unequal impacts of toxic petrochemical industry pollution while working on a large EU-funded project. The industry was going through a crisis due to the attention on marine plastic in 2017 and 2018, and I saw its tremendous response to deal with this crisis. My research began to shift towards how these corporations are reacting to rapidly escalating public attention to overlapping crises, such as plastic waste, the climate emergency and, more recently, the pandemic.
How have petrochemical companies dealt with the reaction to plastic waste?
They got on board with the circular economy, which sounds super – but there is a hierarchy of circular economy principles in terms of the three ‘Rs’: recycling, reuse and reduction. Recycling is low on the hierarchy and reduction is high up, but the industry quickly came on board with recycling because it does not challenge overall production levels. It can be a ‘guilt eraser’ for the consumer and the industry. By reframing the crisis as a recycling issue, the industry can keep producing 500bn plastic bottles a year. It has also reframed the argument in terms of changing recycling systems.
“The industry is on board with recycling because it does not challenge production levels”
What do you mean by that?
One of the main problems with conventional recycling is contamination. The industry’s argument is that, to make ‘virgin quality’ grade plastics, it needs to do chemical recycling – breaking plastic down to its molecular ingredients. It is effectively incineration, because it’s carbon intensive and toxic, and has to be done at a huge scale. So the industry says that the real solution to plastic waste is chemical recycling innovation, which it is working on and getting loads of funding to do, because that’s where the money is. It says it is the primary innovator, and it has the expertise and hold the keys to the changing infrastructure, buying up all the recycling outfits and partnering with waste firms to take technical control over what the circular economy looks like in practice. It is about continuing to produce as much as it likes but changing the inputs and the technologies.
Your book also talks about corporations denying the toxic health effects of plastic – tell me more about that.
The most notorious, well documented examples were historically the vinyl chloride scandals in the 1960s and 1970s, where it was a case of collusion after a number of leading European and American chemical companies found out that the vinyl chloride monomer made in their factories seemed to be causing a rare degenerative bone illness and angiosarcoma, and hid it. The industry has done the same with Bisphenol A and phthalates, which are used in a number of different plastics. It says they’re perfectly safe at certain thresholds, but they’re demonstrably carcinogenic. More recently, there are the ongoing disputes around so-called ‘forever chemicals’ in things like non-stick cookware. There is also growing evidence of microplastics in our bodies, and scientists are still finding out what the health effects are.
How is the plastic waste crisis affecting communities differently worldwide?
Communities of colour, many in Asia and Africa, are exposed to the greatest levels of toxic threats through the open burning of plastic waste next to the petrochemical facilities they live close to. One of the things that made me angry while researching the book was how large corporations blame the very countries they are flooding with plastic waste exports. They rely on that unequal trade, which results in beaches filled with towering toxic waste and open incineration. The corporations then say it’s due to poor infrastructure and education, and come in philanthropically to clean up, or offer to sell the communities recycling solutions!
Should consumers take more responsibility?
The narrative is that the consumers are to blame because they throw away all their litter. That obviously conflicts with the fact that these companies are flooding markets with unrecyclable single-use sachet portions, for example. However, consumer lifestyles do enable this, and I think tough decisions have to be made about convenient commodities and how they might be seen as an infringement on individual liberties, and whether we should be entitled to have all these things.
Has COVID-19 affected the situation?
Many industries work by turning a crisis into an opportunity, and I think COVID-19 was quite a relief for petrochemical companies when it comes to the public perception of plastic. Everyone was saying plastics were bad, but now they are good again, or at least necessary.
I think the industry was surprised by the windfall that came for particular kinds of plastics during the pandemic. Single-use plastic did really well, particularly with the shift towards online deliveries and takeaway food containers. In the early days of the pandemic there was also a huge industry lobbying effort to reverse the plastic bag bans, deposit return schemes and other circular economy-related initiatives, using contamination from virus transmission as an excuse.
It’s hard to say what the long term effect will be, since the UN has agreed a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution.
What are your thoughts on the UN treaty, and what other solutions are there to the crisis?
I was happy about the announcement because there is now an international space for negotiation on this important issue – but it’s going to be politically fraught and contested. When it comes to solutions, it also can’t be about vilifying one material over another – so it’s not just that everything should be replaced by paper, which causes deforestation, or by aluminium, which is a carbon-intensive and problematic mining material. This must be about reducing production and living sustainably with the resources that we have, and designing an equitable, sustainable transition away from wasteful, toxic and carbon-intensive materials. The Break Free from Plastic Movement is one reason for optimism, bringing people together in solidarity to help tackle the unequal impacts being felt in frontline communities.