MY PLASTIC LIFE
Journalist Lucy Siegle has spent the past 10 years investigating the impact plastic has on our lives. In this extract from her new book, Turning The Tide On Plastic, she shares the collective burden that it places on us all
Why our plastic generation needs to kick the addiction.
“EVERYWHERE WE HAVE LOOKED, WE HAVE NOW FOUND PLASTIC,” Professor Richard Thompson told me on my visit to his International Marine Litter Research Unit laboratory at Plymouth University in the UK. It’s a statement that continues to haunt me. Microplastics have been found on beaches from the Atlantic to Antarctica. They’ve even been found in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans.
Over the past 20 years we have truly been plumbing new depths, in the form of submersibles and remotely operated vehicles, or ROVS, that crawl along the deepest trenches of the ocean and record what’s going on in this incredible universe 11,000 metres below. This has changed our thinking. We now know that the Abyssal and Hadal zones of the world’s oceans are not the cold, dead zones that they were once imagined to be, but biodiverse ecosystems, home to coral and hosts of living organisms. At this depth, life is slow: it takes a lot of time for plants and animals to grow and replenish. Contaminants in the form of plastic pollution cry disaster for this delicate ecosystem.
Over the past few years, I’ve been on what can only be described as an epic plastic adventure. I wanted to discover the extent of plastic’s grip on our home lives, but also on commerce and in culture, and to understand its environmental impact and the implications for future generations. I’ve interviewed plastics apologists, deniers, enthusiasts and lovers. Among them, plastic is often referred to as the “skin of commerce” – the implication being that whatever the downsides, we can’t get by without it.
Don’t get me wrong: I was as immersed in the Plastic Age as anybody else. In fact, we’re all children of the Synthetic Century. In common with most other kids born in the ’70s, I spent my childhood obsessively building with those small, coloured blocks of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) more commonly known as Lego. I was a Lego brat, screaming blue murder if any of the monolithic structures I had carefully built were dismantled or damaged in any way by vacuuming. Only my beloved Barbie surpassed my love of Lego. Her general sophistication and glamour, to my seven-year-old eyes, eclipsed the fact that she was essentially a number of different bits of plastic. Or, to be more precise, a rotationally moulded co-polymer for the arms, a body of ABS (like my Lego bricks) and hair made of polyvinylidene chloride (known in the trade as Saran).
Yes, probably like yours, my childhood was relentlessly plasticised. When my neighbours brought me back a plastic Mickey Mouse cup with a twirly straw from Walt Disney World in Florida, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread – which I was also very fond of. Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to stay with my grandparents for the summer holidays, to find that my grandad didn’t share my enthusiasm. He shook his head. “It’s terrible that we waste plastic on stuff like this,” he said.
This was an unusual attitude circa 1981, and I remember it well, not least
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because it was a rebuke from grandparents from whom I usually had a 100 per cent approval rating. I noticed my grandad also took a dim view of the plastic laundry liquid dispensers then coming on to the market and relentlessly advertised on TV. In fact, he seemed to take a dim view of every brilliant consumer product lavishly constructed from plastic. Grandad was vocal on the subject, and told me in no uncertain terms that plastic was made from oil and that once you made something from plastic, it would take hundreds of years to degrade. It was clear that he thought this was an enormously bad idea.
Not only did he dislike the material, he also seemed to make huge efforts to stop it getting into his home, which, alarmingly, he declared a plastic-free zone. When we walked into town, he would loudly decry the use of polythene grocery bags at the checkout, loading his shopping into string bags that he carried everywhere. To my utter mortification, on some trips he actually unpeeled the plastic wrapping from his grocery shop and left it at the checkout in an act of rebellion.
I know you’re thinking typical hippie type, but that wasn’t exactly it. Before he retired, my grandad worked as a scientist for Shell, the international oil company. Given that plastic is made from oil, and inextricably linked to the fossil fuel industry, his professional career meant that he was heavily invested in oil, so his stance was highly unusual. It also had an effect on me. My grandad’s total and public rejection of plastic at the supermarket cash register may have filled me with horror at the time, but a seed had been planted. It took a while to germinate into a real interest as I motored through my teens and twenties consuming fast fashion, fast food and generally living it up in a whirl of consumerism. But now, all these years later, I have to concede that he was on to something. >
17 MILLION: THE NUMBER OF BARRELS OF OIL USED TO PRODUCE DISPOSABLE WATER BOTTLES EACH YEAR