Nothing Encapsulates the False Promise of Capitalism Like Plastic

Nothing Encapsulates the False Promise of Capitalism Like Plastic

Nothing Encapsulates the False Promise of Capitalism Like Plastic

Individual good intentions can only carry us so far when the global recycling system is stacked in favor of the oil industry.


I met Angeline Razafinzhary at her hosue in 2019 while on assignment in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. A design magazine had commissioned me to write about a plastic recycling initiative, and I wanted to speak with one of the hundreds of Malagasy people who trawl municipal waste to find different materials that they can sell to recyclers. In her home, cobbled together from available material, Razafinzhary, her children, and grandchildren ate, cooked, and slept across from a heap of hundreds if not thousands of plastic bottles.

Before meeting Razafinzhary, I had a vague sense of there being a problem with plastic. My own country, Kenya, had banned single-use plastic bags and was working toward a ban on single-use plastic bottles. But it wasn’t until I was doing research for that piece that I fully appreciated how insidious plastic had become—and how mistaken our notions of recycling are. The work that Razafinzhary does for pennies—braving household, commercial, and medical waste with no protective gear—is the thin thread holding together the global recycling system, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Plastics are some of the most useful materials ever invented, and they are killing the planet.

Plastic is everywhere, and it perfectly encapsulates the notion that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Whether you are reading this on your phone or on your computer, you are handling the material. If you brushed your teeth this morning, odds are both your toothbrush and toothpaste contained plastic. Almost all artificial fabrics are made from plastic or its derivatives, including those presented as ethical alternatives like many kinds of vegan leather. If you are a person who menstruates, it is probably in the materials that you are using to manage that. That durability and malleability at relatively low prices is precisely what makes it dangerous to the natural environment. We consume it unthinkingly and in absurd volumes because the cost of accessing it is so low—yet it can last in the environment for hundreds of years.

The problem of plastic encapsulates everything that is wrong with whatever international order exists today. We miscalculate its balance sheet of utility because we don’t account properly for harms that cannot be easily measured in money. Decisions that look cheap on the surface look a lot different if we used a longer time horizon or stopped assuming that the planet has an infinite capacity to absorb human excess. Regions that are the most responsible for causing the problem are working hard to reallocate its consequences to other parts of the world. There would perhaps be greater cooperation if there weren’t deliberate choices taken to keep people oblivious to the scale of the problem. Companies happily brand materials like single-use water bottles as recyclable, knowing that even the most efficient recycling system cannot keep up with the rate at which they are consumed.

The myths around what happens when we recycle drive people to consume more because they believe that the problem of plastic waste has been solved. The United States and Europe are the biggest consumers of plastic in the world, even though it is mainly manufactured in China, and, until recently, most of the waste was sold to countries in Asia allegedly to be recycled. But these Asian countries have had enough. In 2017, for example, China banned plastic waste imports from Europe, because they are never properly sorted, and most of what cannot be used ends up in their rivers and landfills. China burns plastic waste as industrial fuel, and people like Razafinzhary make countries like Madagascar more attractive places to offload material, because poor people physically sort through the waste instead of machines, which are less able to distinguish different types of plastic.

What we have right now is a palliative, half-finished model of recycling that misrepresents the site and scale of the problem and distracts people with individual action as industrial failures grow. The recycling system inspires people to take personal responsibility, but it misleads people about the value of those actions. Certainly, individual use is a part of the problem. The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Plastic Atlas found that more than half of all the plastic that has ever been produced in the world was produced after the year 2000. A 2022 Reuters investigation found that around the world 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute. Yet most of the plastic that we dutifully sort into recycling bins ends up in landfill, waterways, or the ocean. Consumption is growing at startling rates even while the recycling myth falls apart. In March 2023, research estimated that there are about 171 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, and microplastics have been found in drinking water, as well as in human lungs, veins, and placentas. We are choking in plastic.

If you knew the mineral water on your desk or the polyester shirt that you only wore once would one day end up in your dinner and in your veins, would you consume it as thoughtlessly? It’s not an accident that you don’t think about the pervasiveness of plastic. Plastic comes from petroleum, and oil companies spend a great deal of money to foster the illusion that plastic can be recycled, though most of it cannot.

The plastics crisis represents what happens when we stop seeing the world as geographically and temporally interconnected. We are deliberately led believe that consumption is a net positive. Standard economic theory tells us that without mass individual consumption, there is no economic growth. In wealthy countries especially, people are encouraged to believe that consumption symbolizes progress. If you don’t replace your phone every 12 months, the tech company’s profit flatlines, and this has a knock-on effect on the nation’s economy. Don’t worry about the old thing; just put the problem in a colored bin and forget about it.

The plastic crisis is built into the economic model. Waste is an inevitable consequence of a system that stops at the value of consumption and refuses to acknowledge the waste that comes from it. Chasing fashion trends and replacing electronics every few months is not a consequence-free lifestyle. We must reframe the place that unchecked consumption and the abstraction of its waste have in our idea of what it means to be human. The plastic problem is a failure that cannot be fixed by anything short of a fundamental reorganization of our lives.

I’m keenly aware that this is a huge demand, but the more you read the more you realize the time for alternatives has passed. When I left Madagascar, I tried to make small incremental transformations in my own life—bar soap instead of shower gel, bamboo toothbrushes, no more clingfilm, things like that. But when my phone got damaged, I still had to buy a new one, because the manufacturer does not repair phones that are more than four years old, and every “Phone Guy” said the parts would be too expensive to try a repair. Individual good intentions can carry us only so far when the system is stacked in favor of the status quo. It’s time to let individual action be additive to the energy we put into changing the system.

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