Saturday May 18, 2024

States of plastic

According to its organizers, the event now brings together around one billion people across 200 countries every April 22 to help protect the planet

By Editorial Board
April 22, 2024
This Representational image shows a Person holding a world globe. — Unsplash/File
This Representational image shows a Person holding a world globe. — Unsplash/File 

Originally launched back in 1970 by a US senator and environmentalist and a Harvard Graduate student to engage the public and bring more attention to environmental issues in the US, Earth Day can be counted as one of the events or movements that mark the inception of the global environmental movement as we know it today. According to its organizers, the event now brings together around one billion people across 200 countries every April 22 to help protect the planet. A few years after the first Earth Day, which brought an estimated 20 million people in the US onto the streets to ring the environmental alarm bell, the country formed the Environmental Protection Agency and strengthened or passed new environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act. While the air in the US is certainly more breathable today than it was in the 1970s, this has come at the cost of more unbreathable air in the Global South, where many American and other companies from rich countries exported their most polluting activities in the decades following the 1970s. Many of these same companies will be seen today tweeting their support for Earth Day or touting their environmental credentials, with green washing becoming one of the most pernicious trends in the environmental and climate activism landscape nowadays.

The theme for this year’s Earth Day is ‘Planet vs Plastics’, aiming to raise awareness about the dangers of plastic to both the environment and human health. Pakistan can tell one a lot about plastic waste and pollution. The nation is practically drowning in it, with over three million tons of plastic waste being produced in Pakistan every year. At times, this is literally the case as plastic litter clogs pipes and drains, leading to deadly urban floods every time it rains. But plastic pollution is more than just an indirect problem. It is a catastrophe in and of itself. From soil degradation to water pollution and a 20 per cent higher rate of childhood cancer due to micro plastics from plastic degradation and air pollution from plastic waste being burned, there is arguably no material that harms the environment other than the oil and other petrochemicals used to make plastic. There is also likely no material more ubiquitous, in demand and readily and cheaply made, with over 380 million tonnes now being made every year. Plastic goes with almost everything and since it is so cheap it does not exactly encourage moderation or reuse, despite the high environmental cost of not doing so. Plastic is the drug fuelling overconsumption and waste.

Earth Day’s response to this monumental problem is to call for a 60 per cent reduction in plastic production by 2040. This is already an ambitious target and will only become more so as the world gets closer to the 2040 deadline since the demand for plastic is only growing. And although 50 countries, including the UK, have called for an end to plastic pollution by 2040, things will have to change for this aim not to meet the same fate as the move towards clean air. Much of the world’s plastic production and pollution takes place in the Global South but is fuelled by demand in the rich countries. The rise of industries such as fast fashion is only fuelling this demand as people buy around 60 per cent more clothing than they did just 15 years ago but only keep each article for half as long. This is an industry that would not exist without the weak environmental laws and cheap labour of the poor countries and the impunity this polluting industry and others like it enjoy in the rich countries speaks louder than any call to environmental action, with the loudest calls often coming from the very same countries. There is simply no tackling plastic pollution, or any other environmental problem for that matter, without first cracking down on the industries responsible for generating it. This means moving towards economic justice, without which environmental justice is a pipe dream at best and a neo-colonial cudgel at worst.