We have always had an instinctive idea that there was something slightly unpleasant about plastic. One definition of the word in Chambers dictionary is “artificial, lacking genuine substance”, which has a certain irony given its ability to wreak havoc in the natural world for millennia.
Plastic waste has reached almost every corner of the world’s oceans, with some predicting there could be more of the stuff than fish in the sea by the middle of the century. Its effects have been fatal for countless marine animals which have been choked, starved, poisoned and entangled. While it may be nasty, it is also cheap, which has helped make plastic an almost inescapable part of modern life, used to produce everything from bottles and straws to suntan cream and make-up to fleeces and ‘technical’ sports clothes.
But the tide of political opinion is shifting – and its new direction is crystal clear.
Yesterday Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced plans to ban plastic cotton buds in a move that environmentalists said would cut this country’s contribution to marine plastic pollution in half. And Theresa May revealed the UK Government would work to end all avoidable plastic litter by 2042, saying plastic waste was “one of the great environmental scourges of our time”. The only real criticism she faced was for not taking tougher, more urgent action.
This comes after the United Nations decided to “declare war” on ocean plastic last year with an “unprecedented global campaign to eliminate sources of marine litter – microplastics in cosmetics and the excessive, wasteful usage of single-use plastic – by the year 2022”.
As useful as plastic can be, there is little doubt we could easily do without many of the things we have made with it. Few people have a genuine need for a straw; toothbrushes can be made of wood – they did, after all, exist before plastic was invented. Clothing is a major, but often unrecognised, source of plastic pollution as synthetic microfibres are small enough to escape from washing machines, through sewage works, and into the sea. But, as Brian Wilson points out in his column today, people are starting to put greater value on natural materials like Harris Tweed.
We are, it seems, finally realising the importance of that word “natural” and embarking on what may be a long process of creating a less artificial world.