Environment & Health Opinion

We beat the tobacco barons; now its time to take on the purveyors of plastic

Plastic has changed our world. It has lots of fantastic uses, but following the second World War, it started making its way into the everyday, marking the start of a throwaway culture. There was no “away” then, and there is no “away” now.

The recent rise of the fight against plastic straws led to the comparison of straws to cigarettes, an analogy with intriguing potential. Straws are far from being the largest plastic pollutants, but they have been serving as effective campaign tools in efforts to reduce waste. Let me stretch that analogy to single-use plastic more generally.

Plastic straws

Photo: Pixabay.

Consider this: cigarette smoking and general tobacco use declined after data on health risks were repeatedly brought to light. Anti-smoking campaigns as part of public health strategies, ballooning distrust of the tobacco industry for concealing risks, and ultimately, legal and regulatory curbs on the sale and marketing of tobacco products, all led to a reduction in the numbers of smokers.

Governments got involved, retailers were forced to make changes, and individuals’ behaviour responded. This was in spite of the tobacco industry’s big bucks and a decades-old social culture that made smoking look cool, desirable, and socially acceptable.

When it comes to single-use plastic, physical addiction or demonstrated statistics on lung cancer aren’t staring us in the face as with tobacco, but there are now lots of data on health risks from its rampant use. There is also a glut of information on the damage this type of waste and throwaway culture is causing our environment.

Campaigns against it are starting to hit the mainstream. But there is little regulation on these materials and their use. Retailers and manufacturers are not being held to account for the materials they push out into the world.

Plastic attack James Marlow.

A “Plastic Attack” protest in Hong Kong. Photo: James Marlow.

There are occasional examples of bans on particular items (usually with vague processes for immediate or consistent execution, and little thought to the provision of alternatives), but most governments aren’t investing in large-scale campaigns warning against plastic use, or even infrastructure or technology to deal with existing waste.

Prevailing socio-economic culture, and our time-poor urban lives which are built around convenience, have elevated single-use plastic to a nice little no-spill, hygienic-seeming, delivered-to-your-door solution.

I can see the value of comparing an erstwhile insouciant cigarette with an equally insouciant takeaway cup from an expensive cafe, or a chic shopping bag that tells the world where you are privileged enough to shop.

Cigarettes were glamourized within the media, and took on an aura of sprezzatura and desirable rebellion. You might have known the health risks, but everyone was doing it, and it was cool.

Flexing the analogy, single-use plastic is glamourised through beautifully designed glossy shopping bags, branded coffee cups, and everything in between. Not only is it cheap (for the retailers) and convenient, but it also serves as an excellent vehicle for advertising and branding, both high and low.

You might know a ton about waste statistics and marine pollution, but it is still entirely socially acceptable to cavort around with a plastic takeaway cup.

starbucks strawless lids

Starbucks’ strawless lids. Photo: Starbucks.

Continuing to normalise single-use plastic like this is irresponsible and dangerous. Brands need to step up and take responsibility for the habits they promote, their packaging, and materials in their products.

While all of us as individuals can and should choose better, the extent of change that’s needed cannot rest on individual actions because it’s going to take a long while before enough people act. Finding better alternatives in our plastic-reliant lives is far from easy.

Plastic producers are fighting against the rising knowledge of risks to health and environment, with counter-studies and purposeful confusion over the potential harm, tactics borrowed from the tobacco industry. Corporate interests can definitely exert control over governments, so solely focusing on individual action isn’t going to cut it.

I like to think a day will come when people are embarrassed at buying a throwaway cup, perhaps even when it will prove difficult to find a cafe offering a throwaway cup at all, or when brands aren’t popping up with new, appealing, but inherently wasteful packaging.

None of that is going to happen with the flick of a switch, but it could happen with mandates for responsible marketing and a change in the regulatory environment.

We beat the tobacco barons; now its time to take on the purveyors of plastic