To protect our planet, they must be exposed: global problems

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Despite growing public awareness (and regulations on plastic pollution), the global plastics crisis is only getting worse. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah / IPS.
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By the third week – after an in-depth analysis of the troubling connections between fossil capitalism (capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels), waste colonialism (unfair international trade and the disposal of hazardous waste between countries) and environmental injustice – some students grimly said they thought the course would be more optimistic.

During the fourth week, we explored the well-documented history of climate denial and deception among fossil fuel companies, as well as the related “deception and denial” tactics of the tobacco, lead and chemical industries. “Do you think that’s really true?” a pleading student asked me. “Do you think companies are really that unsustainable and will never change?”

I hesitated. I wanted my students to view complex environmental problems from a critical sociological perspective, but I didn’t want to lead them on a pessimistic path. “Well,” I admitted, “I just wrote a book on the plastics industry with the subtitle ‘how multinationals are fueling the ecological crisis and what we can do about it’.”

It is difficult to avoid pessimism when one witnesses firsthand the obstinacy of socially and environmentally harmful industries. In early 2019, I attended a conference on the plastics industry in the wake of the marine plastics crisis, sparked by public outrage over viral images of plastic-choked marine fauna. The crisis has prompted a rapid response from plastics-related companies, which have attempted to frame the problem in terms of waste and waste rather than overproduction. “We need to get the image of ocean plastic out of the public’s mind,” a corporate executive exclaimed at the conference. “We need to make plastic great again.”

Since the dramatic increase in plastic production around the world after World War II, petrochemical and plastics companies have fought to expand and protect their markets by creating demand for plastic products, denying toxic risks and discharging the blame for pollution. on consumers. And despite growing public awareness (and regulations on plastic pollution), the global plastics crisis is only getting worse.

My new book, Plastic Unlimited, sheds light on the corporate roots of this crisis. In it, I deal with the concept of “company playbook” used by big oil, big tobacco and, more recently, big plastic.

Playbook tactics

The corporate playbook often contains a common repertoire of strategies used by controversial industries to hide or question the harmful effects of their products. The champions of these strategies have been dubbed “merchants of doubt” and accused of downplaying the health risks of smoking and funding climate change denial.

As researcher David Michaels wrote in his exposition Doubt is their product, “the plastics industry’s manipulation of science was at least as flagrant and selfish as any other industry” he had studied about, including the plastic industry. tobacco. Michaels was referring to the vinyl chloride scandals of the 1960s and 1970s, when major chemical companies conspired to hide evidence of the toxic health effects of vinyl chloride monomer on workers in chemical plants.

The track record of large industry continues today. It has denied the toxic risks of a myriad of petrochemicals and plastic products, funded climate disinformation campaigns, misled the public about the effectiveness of recycling, and lobbied to counter and delay environmental regulations. During the pandemic, it also lobbied to promote single-use plastic bags as a “health choice”.

Leading companies also use offensive tactics, including directing attention to their role as so-called innovators in green technology. Take the circular economy, for example. It seems a great idea to try to eliminate waste by moving from a linear “take-produce-waste” economy to an economy in which existing materials are reused for as long as possible. But, above all, no global or national political vision of a circular economy for plastics goes as far as calling for the production of plastics to be completely limited.

In fact, the plastics industry promotes the weakest form of the circular economy – recycling – which means that plastic production can continue, despite the reality that most items that end up in a bin will eventually be burned. or downloaded.

Furthermore, recycling consumes a lot of energy. Chemical recycling, for example, involves restoring plastic to its original molecular state for reuse. Although it is promoted as a solution to the plastics crisis, it is a toxic and carbon-intensive process that is effectively the same as incineration.

Here’s the good news: In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi agreed on a mandate for a new global treaty to address the crisis. This was a key milestone in creating legally binding measures to prevent toxic plastic pollution.

Many scientists, activists and organizations insist that any resulting treaty must include a limit on plastic production. Negotiations will be challenging, however, given the vested interests of businesses in keeping regulations focused on waste rather than production. Now, it is urgent to reject greenwashing and work towards a global mandate to limit the unsustainable growth of plastics.The conversation

Alice Mah, professor of sociology, Warwick University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

© Inter Press Service (2022) – All rights reservedOriginal source: InterPress Service