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

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GUS & STELLA

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

DUMP­ING YOUR OLD LAP­TOP OR PHONE IN THE BIN MEANS HARM­FUL CHEM­I­CALS LIKE MER­CURY AND LEAD CAN LEACH INTO LAND­FILL, AND THEN INTO OUR WA­TER­WAYS AND SOIL. AL­WAYS DIS­POSE OF E-WASTE PROP­ERLY BY CALL­ING 1800EWASTE OR GO­ING TO EWASTE.COM.AU. FOR A FEE, THE SER­VICE WILL PICK UP YOUR OLD TECH AND RE­CY­CLE UP TO 98 PER CENT OF IT INTO NEW MA­TE­RI­ALS.

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

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