TEXT AND ARTWORK JESPER GUDBERGSEN @yessirjesper
In a Dutch court in the Hague in late May ‘21, something major happened. For the first time in recent climate-conscious memory, a judge actually ruled against a giant polluting corporation. Royal Dutch Shell – the British-Dutch oil and gas powerhouse – was not only held accountable for their disgraceful negligence, but was also subject to a ruling demanding that they rein in their carbon emissions twenty years faster than the company had previously set out to do, upping the ante to 45% by 2030. Not only was this a major victory for the more than 17,000 civilian plaintiffs and seven environmental agencies who filed this case, it will hopefully be setting a precedent for many more lawsuits to be filed against numerous climate enemies the world over as NPR reports there are currently over a dozen similar cases waiting to go to trial in the US.
The fossil fuel industry has long operated without sufficient supervision. As one of many super-powered mega industries that provide a service so significant to modern day life, governments all over the globe – in rich/poor/western/developing countries alike – have all chosen to look the other way when it comes to any accountability for its impact on our changing climate. To go into every single detail about the devastating effects our continued use of oil have on our environment would take all day, but to summarize, the production of oil is in many cases directly contributing to water pollution and contamination (through leaks, spills and the horrors of fracking) toxic air pollution (in the US alone, more than 12 million people are exposed to it daily, either directly from nearby oil wells, or the transportation and processing of oil) and global warming (the burning of oil, primarily for the transportation and power sectors, accounts for about three-quartes of US carbon emissions).
The disgusting picture that’s painted here is further distorted once you realize that often, the communities living in the areas surrounding these facilities are largely made up of people of color, resulting in what is often described as environmental racism.
So where exactly does plastic enter the picture? Though it’s rarely ever at the forefront of the conversation, the link between plastic and oil is a strong one. Plastic is almost exclusively made from nonrenewable fossil fuel-derived materials (99%), and is therefore a direct by-product of the oil industry – something many people are blissfully unaware of. The reason they’re not often discussed in the same conversation is clear: both industries have long been in perpetual hot water, and being associated with each other could only make that water boil over. Because of this, it’s been in their best interests to underplay their bond and pull lobbying strings behind the scenes.
Even with administrations worldwide continuing to lie to their constituents about the reality of Climate Change, there is a shift in popular opinion. So many now know that we need to change the source of our energy and are actively fighting back. Changes are happening, such as the shocking announcement that the Keystone pipeline project has been cancelled, and oil and coal industries are having to adapt. As scientists and engineers continue to explore new ways to obtain energy (solar power, wind power et. al), the oil industry is feeling increasingly threatened and the symbiotic relationship between oil and plastic is growing ever stronger as a result. How are they doing this? By switching gears and expanding the market for plastic in quite a few ingenious ways….
In what seems like a plastic manufacturer’s wet dream, untapped markets in Africa and Asia are now in focus. A major strategy in the last decade or so has been to introduce more and more single-use plastic items and packaging in countries that previously operated just fine without plastic playing a major part in daily life. A country like India for instance has been the key focus of many plastic manufacturers recently – a 2018 study by Indian trade association FICCI showed how Indians on average consume around 11kg of plastic per year, which is only about ten percent of the average 109kg American uses annually. Plastic consumption in China and India are currently estimated at an annual growth rate of five percent in the next five years alone. Of course this is where plastics will turn to for expansion: what a brilliant opportunity to scale up their market presence….
Back at home, the cosmetics industry has also been upping the focus on single use plastic by serving up the hottest new beauty items in one-time use packaging, under the guise of being convenient and affordable for everyone. Have a look at the “travel” or mini/easy-sized sections in your local stores. Last time I checked, my Target now has an entire aisle full of plastic beauty minies – and this is at a time where practically no one has been able to travel for over a year….
Does anyone really believe the intentions behind recent TV ads where the soda industry is joining hands with their competitors and promising to help us fight global warming by accepting our empty bottles and switching to manufacturing bottles made from recycled plastic? Isn’t that about 50 years too late? Didn’t they know there would be a waste problem from the very get go – but still decide to go with plastic anyways? It’s all just one more attempt at wiping off the blame and responsibility on the consumer and not the manufacturer….
Possibly the most glaring and offensive bit of marketing genius they’re selling us is this: Plastic is clean. Let’s not underestimate the impact the global pandemic has had on our use of plastics every day, for obvious reasons. Individually wrapped and/or single use products mean we are not exposed to someone else’s bacteria. Cities all over the US went from banning plastic bags from everyday use, to bringing them back overnight so clerks wouldn’t have to touch the bags brought from home. Your local coffee shop won’t accept your reusable cup anymore. Restaurants still are giving their diners individually wrapped plastic cutlery so they aren’t accused of not doing everything in their power to combat the virus. We have all been wearing plastic face masks, plastic visors, and even many single-use plastic gloves for nearly 18 months now. We’ve been encouraged to go through them at a high rate, just to be on the safe side. While we undoubtedly can’t blame the fossil fuel industry for COVID-19, it certainly was good for business and came at a very opportune time….
The list goes on and on at an endlessly tiring pace too sad to list here, but we’d like you to leave with at least this:
When we continue to choose the plastic option over a more sustainable choice, we are – albeit indirectly – supporting the oil industry which has a huge incentive to continue supporting the plastics industry as they look to protect their sources of income. Let’s try to see the consequences of our decisions through to the end. One thing at a time is a step in the right direction, but let’s try not be blinded by the promises big companies are making on our way to true sustainability. It’s so important to remember that everything is intimately connected, even when these industries are fighting tooth and nail to keep it a secret from us.