Lucy Siegle: Turning the Tide on Plastic [review]

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Lucy Siegle’s most recent book Turning the Tide on Plastic is a down-to-earth exploration of why our addiction to plastic packaging is a problem, and what we can do about it. It covers the science without an overuse of jargon, blames industry and policy rather than individuals, and gives practical advice on how you could make a difference.

In the UK we create 5 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste every single year, and we only have the industrial capacity to recycle 350,000 tonnes — that’s just 7% of what we create. Globally just 15% of all plastic waste is recycled.

The first part of Siegle’s book looks at why plastic has become such an issue. As she explores, the early days of plastic were all about ingenuity and problem-solving. The first plastic was Parkesine, and was developed as a man-made alternative to tortoise-shell, popular in the 1800s and responsible for the Hawksbill turtle now being an endangered species. Similarly, in 1869 we saw ivory billiard balls replaced with a plastic version. Plastic windshields were devloped for World War II bomber planes due to a shortage of materials during the war. It was only after World War II that plastic became widely used commercially, becoming the packaging for luxury goods. It was picked up by the branding and marketing industry, and thus began the problem.

“A barbie doll: a rotationally moulded co-polymer for the arms; a body of ABS and hair made from vinyledine chloride polymers.” (Lucy Siegle, Turning the Tide on Plastic)

Even the term ‘plastic’ is problematic, covering a huge range of man-made materials. Siegle aptly makes this point with reference to a Barbie doll as “a rotationally moulded co-polymer for the arms; a body of ABS and hair made from vinyledine chloride polymers”. Like so much of modern-life, we are so far removed from the manufacturing process of our plastic products and packaging, that we don’t really have an understanding of what ‘plastic’ is, and the materials that come under that umbrella.

This is also the root of problems with recycling, and why recycling (unfortunately) isn’t the answer — whether plastic can be recycled varies drastically depending on the type of plastic and the council that you live in. “Some of the actual plastic wrappings on everyday products have become so complicated you need a PhD in polymeric science to understand which bin they should go in.”

When we think of preventing waste, we tend to put the onus on the individual consumer, expecting them to recycle more, without tackling the root of the problem or having the systems in place to recycle the amount that we produce. Siegle discusses this too.

“What I’d love to consider is whether the litter-lout, the bogeyman of the plastic pandemic, isn’t actually a widely overblown construct, a convenient semi-truth that’s let the real culprits in the waste pandemic off the hook.” (Lucy Siegle, Turning the Tide on Plastic)

In the UK she gives the example of the phenomenon of the ‘litterbug’ and the idea that we blame individuals for our waste, not the manufacturers: “What I’d love to consider is whether the litter-lout, the bogeyman of the plastic pandemic, isn’t actually a widely overblown construct, a convenient semi-truth that’s let the real culprits in the waste pandemic off the hook.” She notes the irony that the Keep Britain Tidy campaign is sponsored by the likes of Coca-Cola, Lidl, McDonalds and DS Smith (the biggest packaging company in the UK), when coca-Cola alone produce over 110 billion plastic bottles per year. It’s staggering.

Over in the USA, Siegle notes that $180 billion has been spent since 2010 on building new plastic manufacturing plants, with the aim of pushing sales of polyethylene (bottles, containers) to aid economic growth. As Naomi Klein had previously covered in This Changes Everything, our economic system of capitalism which favours economic growth over all else, can never be a positive for the environment.

If I have one criticism of Turning the Tide on Plastic, it is that this blame on manufacturers, industry, and policy does not follow through enough into the second part of the book, which focuses on what we can do about the problem. Although she does mention some elements of activism such as complaining to companies through social media, most of the changes that she advocates bring the issue back to the individual, and the onus is on changing your habits as a person, rather than tackling our manufacturing system.

But in her defence, changing the system is a long-term dream, whereas changing a habit can be done in a couple of weeks, and there are definitely some things that we should all be doing. The advice to take a look in our own bins is good advice, taking stock of the areas which bring the most waste into our homes — for most of us, that will be food and groceries. To list a few simple changes that we could (and should) all make to reduce our own plastic waste:

  • Switch to reusable products where you can: water bottles, on-the-go coffee cups, menstrual pads and cups, metal straws, and so on.
  • Buy less: buy only what you need, and choose long-lasting quality
  • Buy in bulk — the bigger the packet you buy, the less excess packaging
  • Explore unpackaged alternatives in your area e.g. farmers markets, zero waste shops — and you can always buy loose fruit and veg in the supermarket too

Siegle’s book is timely, coming in a year when social media, office conversations, and news articles are rife with discussion on the problem of plastics. So why has plastic been adopted so quickly as a problem? Siegle suggests it has something to do with our emotions: we physically see plastic waste every time we walk down a canal, or visit a local beach. It fills our spaces and clogs our seas. It’s much easier to visualise than greenhouse gases, for instance, even though it’s part of the same problem.

And we can’t avoid Blue Planet II: it’s hard to deny the impact that Attenborough’s most recent show had. Again it’s the emotional connection, Blue Planet II showed us how plastic is affecting our seas and marine life, and that’s hard to ignore. Siegle quotes James Honeyborne, the producer of Blue Planet II, who picks up on the idea of plastic being visible, being impossible to ignore:

“Our job is to tell stories about incredible marine life, and that’s what we set out to do… but when our crews went out they would find plastic everywhere they looked. So it became part of the story, we couldn’t ignore it. If we were going to give a contemporary portrait of the world’s oceans, we’d have to include plastic.” (James Honeyborne, Blue Planet II Producer)

It seems apt to end this review on that note. We can’t just ignore the plastic problem: it’s too big, and it definitely isn’t going anywhere —since it doesn’t break down, it simply can’t go anywhere.

Lucy Siegle’s Turning the Tide on Plastic was the Rebel Book Club read for November 2018 — a non-fiction book club focused on game-changing reads. Go to www.rebelbookclub.co.uk to see what we’re reading now.

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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