The Plastic Deception – Politics, Plastic, and Marine Conservation

Some enormous, breaking news today (16/02/24) on the plastics industry from the US-based Centre for Climate Integrity. Their report, ‘The Fraud of Plastic Recycling’ brings to the surface what many in the conservation and waste sectors have known for decades, yet the majority of people have been completely unaware of.

“Through new and existing research, “The Fraud of Plastic Recycling” shows how Big Oil and the plastics industry have deceptively promoted recycling as a solution to plastic waste management for more than 50 years, despite their long-standing knowledge that plastic recycling is not technically or economically viable at scale. Now it’s time for accountability.”

Our Waste is Drowning Us

Leading and working on grassroots programs to develop new, viable economic models through turning waste into wealth in some of the most marginalised coastal communities, has given me a firsthand insight into the “fraud” behind single-use plastics. From not so humble beginnings in the 1950s where big oil and gas bullied the hemp industry into almost non-existence, to enormous political lobbying to keep these harmful, ecosystem-wrecking products in circulation, all of us should be outraged.

Current estimates of 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastic in the ocean, really just scratch the surface of an issue that has the potential to wipe out our species. We’re growing our food in plastic, ingesting it, breathing it in. We’re feeding it to our children and, like tobacco, DDT, or asbestos before it, scientific research hasn’t yet gathered enough evidence to fully quantify the impact that it is having on human and environmental health.

What blows my mind the most about this issue is the fact that, even here in Australia, we thought that our yellow (or blue) lid bins were reflections of stewardship: sorting, washing, and ensuring that we “did the right thing” when it came to our seemingly stellar waste management industry. The reality hit the fan in 2018 when China stopped taking our recycling waste…

Wait, what!? We were sending our recycling to China?? I was as shocked and baffled as everyone else…

And so, national headlines reflected that yes indeed, Australia had been exporting over 125,000 tonnes of “recyclable” plastic waste per annum to China, as well as over half of our cardboard, paper and other products. What happened to it once there was anyone’s guess and, with China taking over 30 million tonnes of waste from around the world prior to the ban, it’s no wonder that cities like Beijing have regular “stay inside” days due to the toxic smog that lingers thick in the air.

Politics, Plastic, and Marine Conservation

When the echoes of what would become Positive Change for Marine Life began as a humble social media page in Japan in 2011, waste was not on our agenda. Yet, when myself and our Co-Founder returned to Australia a few months after that fateful trip, we began to realise the dire need for solutions to what seemed like an issue that barely anybody was talking about. The elephant in the room, plastic waste was everywhere, even in the relatively small coastal towns of northern NSW, where we were based. We began to campaign on single-use plastics and marine debris in 2012 and have since run over 25 projects in 6 countries to raise awareness and address this seemingly insurmountable challenge, as well as to support and lead 3 plastics bans across Australia, India, and the Seychelles, with another currently being worked on by our Solomon Islands team and provincial government partners. Despite these wins, bans haven’t resulted in a long-term solution in most places, largely due to a lack of resource support to educate communities, enable alternative markets and deal with the current waste and supply-chain issues.

Our work in the Seychelles in 2016 led directly to the first single-use plastics ban in 2017, with subsequent single-use product bans put into place in 2019 and 2021.

As our work and team have evolved over the past decade, driving multi-faceted Waste to Wealth programs in communities who are at the forefront of the plastic industry’s deceit, the need for real-world solutions to plastic waste has only continued to increase. Just yesterday, during a call with our India team in Kerala, our Coordinator Libin turned his computer screen towards bellowing black smoke from one of the most expensive resorts in the state, who were burning piles of plastic waste from their wealthy clientele right next to our Marine Conservation Centre! Ironic, yes. However, this is the global reality that faces every community in every developing country on earth. “Developed” countries are no different. Whenever I’m in the US, Japan, Korea, even Canada, I’m astounded at the amount of single-use plastic still in circulation. Every product comes with a straw, every plate is polystyrene, every bread roll is offered with its own individual plastic bag. At COP15 in Montreal last year, I was blown away by the amount of trash in the streets all throughout the city. “It’s Canada for Pete’s sake! Aren’t they one of the most progressive, environmentally conscious countries on earth?” I guess I overlooked the tar sands and the massive lobbying power that fossil fuel companies have over the Canadian government…

While Australia has made some solid inroads in this department with some effective single-use plastic bag bans and further legislation being rolled out for a range of other items, we are still far from perfect, with our recycling industry in shambles and the level of deceit from our own mammoth fossil fuels industry up there with the best of them. Thankfully, with last year’s soft plastic fiasco coming to light, where Redcycle had secretly stockpiled 3,000 tonnes of soft plastic while our major supermarket chains Woolworths and Coles continued to brand their single-use products as recyclable, offering facilities to dispose of them to be sent to Redcyle, our naivety or purposeful ignorance started to be replaced by outrage.

Fast forward to 2024 and we find ourselves on the cusp of (hopefully) some major civil action against the fossil fuel industry, their lobbyists, and the plastics industry itself. The cat has been out of the bag on Coca cola, Nestle, Pepsi Co., and others for years, yet this report brings to light what we’ve known for a very long time, we’ve been lied to and, again like big tobacco, the major companies behind it have hidden it for decades.

Plastic, plastic everywhere…

Thankfully, there are solutions that can also drive broad scale livelihood creation for some of the most marginalised global communities.

Deep breath in…

Despite all of the evidence, all of the lies, all of the greenwashing, dumping, burning and destruction, I still find myself in a situation where I scratch my head in disbelief at our own sector. Throughout almost all of the conferences that I’ve presented at, attended, collaborated on, single-use plastic still pops up its ugly head from caterers, food waste (in the tonnes) is still prevalent, and people shoot our team sideways looks when we mention that plastic waste is key to successful climate policy and adaptation mechanisms, ket to effective Marine Protected Area management…

We need a collective mind reset, not just within government, but within the conservation sector itself, developing climate and biodiversity approaches that integrate waste mitigation and solutions as a key element of habitat restoration and species protection programs. Plastic, despite its lack of sexiness, prestige, and appeal, is here in its trillions and I don’t believe that many long-term, truly impactful conservation, or associated climate programs, can be successful without incorporating solutions to it into their design.

Our Waste to Wealth programs have eliminated an estimated 2.5 million items at source per annum, while our plastic lobbying efforts have resulted in an estimated 40 million plastic items per year no longer being in circulation.

Driving Real Change To Address The Plastic Crisis

Our team have proven that the only solution to the plastic crisis is to stop the flow of these harmful products at their source:

  1. Our #LeaveNoTrace project does just that, converting businesses and vendors towards becoming 100% single-use plastic product free, while assisting them with branding and supply chain transitions. To date, this project alone has resulted in ~2.5 million single-use plastic items being removed from supply chains annually!

  2. In addition, we address existing waste through our weekly #WasteCollectionService, employing over 90 marginalised women in India alone to drive the project forward, while our #OrganicComposting project converts harmful organic waste into profitable organic compost, with recent Aid funding supporting its expansion into the Solomon Islands.

    Over the years, we’ve been a part of (and still are a part of) a number of plastic alliances, plastics industry-led councils, working groups and covenants. I can tell you that, when push comes to shove, they really don’t give a damn. Driven by increasing shareholder profits at all costs, our team have been called out by some of these groups as being, “too forward in calling them out”, asked to, “tread more lightly so as not to offend them.” When nonprofit partners are asked to “reign it in” when they raise the issues that they were formed to address, it’s no wonder we find ourselves in this plastic nightmare. Greenwashing reigns supreme.

    Through our multi-faceted Waste to Wealth programs, we’ve shown that real change is possible and, while waiting for the major corporations who are doing the majority of the damage to act is a nice idea, time has told us that their hands are tied. That they are intrinsically linked to the lobbyists who this report calls out.

    Engaging almost 100 businesses across India, the Solomon Islands, and Australia, our Leave No Trace project has ensured that harmful single-use plastics are removed at source, while boosting local business and assisting with supply-chain transitions.

    Like many of the social and environmental challenges that our world currently faces, we believe that solutions lie in local approaches, not multi-government, multi stakeholder pacts or alliances led by industry, but community and NGO-led, government and stakeholder-inclusive programs that take action despite the many challenges that present themselves. With greater resource support, and reduced hurdles to addressing these enormous challenges, we know that our Waste to Wealth program can be scaled, replicated, and adapted around the world. All we need now is the corporate and political will to drive them forward.

    The Coca-Cola Company , PepsiCo , Nestlé , MONDELEZ INTERNATIONAL , Unilever , Procter & Gamble , Mars , Philip Morris International, Woolworths Group, Coles Group, Bunnings and others – are you listening?

    You can read the full report from the The Center for Climate Integrity here:

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