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To stop plastic waste

Plastic Unlimited. How Corporations Are Fueling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It
Forfatter: Alice Mah
Forlag: (USA)
ECOLOGY / In the future, plastics will be the largest driver for continued oil demand – with almost half of global oil demand by 2050.


I well remember that my mother used to wash plastic bags. She was born before the war, and it is in her that you do not throw away useful things. Today we pile all kinds of plastic in the plastic fraction and believe that it will then be recycled. The truth is that most are burned, and much ends up on landfills and in the sea. Who hasn't seen pictures of dead whales full of plastic? A new book points to big industry as the main culprit.

More and more of us are being made aware that we should bring our own shopping nets when we go to the store. Quite a few clean beaches of plastic and other things. And there is a lot going on internationally to find binding solutions. So there might be reason to be optimistic? My own spinal reflex says yes. I prefer to see a bottle as half full rather than saying it is half empty. But we need critical correctives, and that also applies to the plastic problem. And despite positive international negotiations, the demand for plastic continues to increase.

As the world eventually transitions away from fossil fuels, plastic is the product that will be the biggest driver of continued oil demand. Single-use plastic, which was considered essential in the fight against covid-19, has been given a new lease of life.

"Limitless growth"

In the book Plastic Unlimited Sociology professor Alice Mah from the University of Warwick describes how the petrochemical industry and plastics companies are fighting to protect and expand their plastic markets. They now experience an existential threat to their own livelihood. Previously, the industry denied the negative health effects of plastic production and use. Today, they are more sophisticated and forward-looking. They are positive about the work with circular economy solutions for plastic waste. But, writes Mah, chemical recycling is difficult. And plastic production itself remains a problem, despite the fact that plastic-wrapped food has a longer shelf life.

Through six chapters and approximately 180 pages, Mah analyzes plastic use from a broad societal perspective, and the conclusion is predictable, but not necessarily less true for that reason: We all have a role to play in reducing plastic consumption, but the problem must be tackled at the root. The author names the root problem as "the capitalist imperative for limitless growth".

The climate crisis and plastic production are closely linked. The book can therefore be read as a merciless critique of the fossil fuel industry's strategies to turn plastic into what Mah calls "the pet food of the global health industry and renewable energy technology communities". New plastic products can be important in themselves, but they also lead to more problems, is the message from Mah. These products contribute to the fossil fuel industry's bottom line.

Well, not many countries are as well off as our own, where after all Equinor's income benefits us all.

It is of course in the interests of the petrochemical and fossil fuel industry to be at the forefront of technological development. Many skilled professionals are involved in complex technological processes and will secure business operations from the shock that can quickly come with a real green shift. The industry is therefore working systematically to design and control the new circular systems, writes Mah. And they have to, as more and more emphasis is placed on environmental considerations, less plastic packaging and recycling.

But since there are more and more people on the planet, and since companies are pushing, our common priority, writes Mah, must be to reduce toxic and wasteful global plastic production. This is not easy, as there are big values ​​and the battle for the bottom line at stake.


However, in certain academic circles, and among some activists, there is a growing interest in so-called degrowth. Simply put, this is a critique of capitalist economic growth. It advocates less production and consumption as well as a reorientering to use fewer natural resources and to live more sustainably. Sustainable growth is in itself a difficult and diluted term, but is used by many, not least the Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato. She is one of the academics Mah presses to his chest.

Part of the necessary green transition away from fossil fuels.

We must fundamentally restructure capitalism and make it inclusive and sustainable, Mazzucato wrote in A new economy (2021). Our economic system must solve concrete problems, from the digital divide and life-threatening pandemics to pollution in cities. This means that companies, society and authorities must gather around common goals.

Reducing plastic must be seen as such a common goal and be part of the necessary green transition away from fossil fuels. But today's circular economy policy fails to challenge the capitalist imperative for growth, claims Mah. Declining growth simply requires that we reduce production and reduce consumption of single-use plastics. Furthermore, products must be redesigned so that they can be reused and refilled in an affordable, safe and efficient way.


The largest market segment for plastics today is packaging. It accounts for approximately 40 percent of the plastic turnover on the world market. The second largest market is for construction, with 20 percent. New plastic markets are also growing rapidly within green technologies. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), plastics will become the biggest driver of oil demand in the energy transition we are now entering into, and plastic production will account for close to half of global oil demand by 2050.

We must therefore challenge ourselves and our loved ones about our plastic habits, summarizes Mah. We must all recognize that the plastic crisis is an existential planetary crisis, and act on this knowledge. The growth in plastic products must be stopped.

"The result from Nairobi is the most significant thing that has happened to the environment since the Paris Agreement."

Climate and Environment Minister Espen Barth Eide is doing his part. At the beginning of March this year, the world's environmental protection ministers agreed at a meeting in Nairobi to achieve a global legally binding agreement to stop plastic littering. This exists primarily as a resolution. Eventually, an agreement will be drawn up where countries commit to new rules against plastic litter. Barth Eide then told Klassekampen that "the result from Nairobi is the most significant thing that has happened to the environment since the Paris Agreement".

Washing plastic bags

Much work remains. In the meantime, I have started washing my own plastic bags that I use to store food in, just like my mother does. And I take shopping nets with me to the store. Perhaps the most important thing is that I vote in elections. And that I read books by people like Mah. Her challenging look at the plastics and petrochemical industry is a significant contribution in keeping our critical sense sharpened.

Andrew P. Kroglund
Andrew P. Kroglund
Kroglund is a critic and writer. Also Secretary General of BKA (Grandparents' Climate Action).

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