This spring, I taught a new undergraduate course in environmental sociology. Most of my students took the course because they were curious to see what their desire to live more sustainably had to do with sociology.
At week three – after a deep dive into the troubling connections between fossil capitalism (capitalism’s reliance on fossil fuels), waste colonialism (the unfair international trade and disposal of hazardous waste between countries) and the environmental injustice – a few students said sadly that they thought the course would be more optimistic.
In week four, we explored the well-documented history of climate denial and deception among fossil fuel companies, as well as the related “deception and denial” tactics of the tobacco, lead, and lead industries. chemistry. “Do you think that’s really true?” asked a pleading student. “Do you think businesses are really unsustainable and will never change? »
I hesitated. I wanted my students to consider complex environmental issues from a critical sociological perspective, but I didn’t want to lead them down a pessimistic path. “Well,” I admitted, “I just wrote a book about the plastics industry with the subtitle ‘how companies are fueling the ecological crisis and what we can do about it’”.
It’s hard to avoid pessimism when witnessing firsthand the stubbornness of socially and environmentally harmful industries. In early 2019, I attended a plastics industry conference in the wake of the marine plastic crisis, sparked by public outrage over viral images of marine wildlife choking on plastic. The crisis has prompted a rapid response from plastics-related companies, which have tried to frame the problem in terms of litter and waste rather than overproduction. “We need to chase the image of plastic from the oceans of the public’s mind,” one business executive exclaimed at the conference. “We need to make plastic fantastic again.”
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Since the dramatic increase in plastic production worldwide after World War II, petrochemical and plastics companies have fought to expand and protect their markets by creating demand for plastic products, denying toxic risks and rejecting responsibility for pollution on consumers. And despite growing public awareness of plastic pollution (and regulation of it), the global plastic crisis is only getting worse.
My new book, Plastic Unlimited, sheds light on the roots of this crisis in companies. In this one, I discuss the concept of the “corporate playbook” used by Big Oil, Big Tobacco and, more recently, Big Plastics.
The business manual often contains a common repertoire of strategies used by controversial industries to conceal or cast doubt on the harmful effects of their products. The champions of these strategies have been dubbed “the merchants of doubt” and accused of offenses ranging from downplaying the health risks of smoking to funding climate change denial.
As researcher David Michaels wrote in his talk Doubt Is Their Product, “the plastics industry’s manipulation of science was at least as blatant and as self-serving as any other industry” he had researched. – including the tobacco industry. Michaels was referring to the vinyl chloride scandals of the 1960s and 1970s, when large chemical companies conspired to hide evidence of vinyl chloride monomer’s toxic health effects on chemical plant workers.
The record of big industry continues today. He has denied the toxic dangers of a myriad of petrochemicals and plastic products, funded climate disinformation campaigns, misled the public about the effectiveness of recycling, and lobbied to thwart and delay environmental regulations. During the pandemic, he also lobbied to promote single-use plastic bags as a “sanitary choice”.
Big companies are also using offensive tactics, including drawing attention to their role as so-called green tech innovators. Take the circular economy, for example. It seems like a great idea to try to eliminate waste by moving from a linear “take-make-waste” economy to one in which existing materials are reused for as long as possible. But, crucially, no global or national political vision of a circular economy for plastics goes so far as to call for completely limiting plastic production.
Read more: Plastic pollution is a global problem – here’s how to design an effective treaty to reduce it
In fact, the plastics industry promotes the weakest form of the circular economy – recycling – which means plastic production can continue, despite the fact that most items that go into a recycling bin will end up by being burned or thrown away.
In addition, recycling consumes a lot of energy. Chemical recycling, for example, involves returning plastics to their original molecular state for reuse. Although touted as a solution to the plastic crisis, it is a toxic, carbon-intensive process that is actually the same as incineration.
Here’s some good news: in March 2022, the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi agreed on a mandate for a new global treaty to address the crisis. This was a landmark achievement towards creating legally binding measures to prevent toxic plastic pollution.
Many scientists, activists and organizations insist that any resulting treaty must include a cap on plastic production. Negotiations will be difficult, however, given business interests in keeping regulations focused on waste rather than production. Now it is urgent that we push back on greenwashing and work towards a global mandate to limit the unsustainable growth of plastics.