Liberal commentators constantly call on us to take ‘individual action’ to avert ecological disaster. But even where this is done, the profit system still stands in the way – as the chaos of plastic recycling aptly demonstrates.
We are facing a severe climate crisis. Not only is this already causing severe damage to ecosystems, and to both animal and human life, but a chain-reaction of environmental catastrophes ultimately threatens the continued existence of our species itself.
The perpetrators of this crisis are the capitalist class. For them, short-term profit will always come before environmental sustainability. If the planet burns and floods, they know that they can use their wealth to ensure that they are the last to face any consequences.
The ruling class and their mouthpieces insist that the working class are to blame. If only we were all better at turning off the lights when we left the room! If only we all went vegan!
This insidious propaganda only serves to shift the blame away from the real criminals: the capitalists and their profit system. 70% of CO2 emissions are produced by just 100 companies. Not only are these wealth-sucking parasites destroying the very planet we live on, but they have the gall to point the finger at us!
The chaos that is the global waste management system is a prime example of the inability of the profit-centric capitalist system to be responsible or sustainable. After decades of encouraging UK households to recycle their waste, 46% is now sent for recycling. But the shocking reality is that most waste sent for recycling just ends up in a landfill or in an incinerator.
Half of all paper and cardboard sent to be recycled, and two-thirds of plastics, are packed into shipping containers which carry them abroad for processing – mostly to Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Once there, much of the rubbish is extremely difficult to trace. More often than not, it ends up in the illegal waste trade, where workers – including children – toil in horrendous conditions picking out the most valuable recyclable materials.
The rest is incinerated, releasing toxic fumes in the process, or dumped in landfills or the sea. This is the reason that 60% of ocean plastic originates in a handful of poor Asian countries.
A load of rubbish
The situation has been made even worse by the decision of the Chinese government to ban imports of 24 types of common recyclable waste from the beginning of 2018. For the Chinese, this was a reasonably straight-forward economic trade-off: generally low oil prices mean new plastic tends to be cheaper to create than recycled plastic, undercutting its price whilst providing superior quality. When the social and economic costs of pollution are factored in, the Chinese government’s decision makes a lot of sense.
For UK councils, however, this has been a disaster. There is simply not enough global capacity in the recycling industry to handle the immense volume of waste being put in recycling bins. And why would a capitalist invest in developing this capacity, only to produce inferior, expensive plastic?
In the UK itself, this is compounded by our ‘post-industrial’ economy. In other words, there is much more money to be won by gambling on the stock-market than investing in real production!
As a result, councils are increasingly giving up on recycling. In 2017-18, Westminster council incinerated 82% of its household waste – including that which was sent to be recycled. Basingstoke Borough Council has now closed all 29 of its mixed plastic recycling ‘bring banks’. And Southampton Council is trying to square the environmental circle by incinerating recycled plastic to generate energy to sell to the National Grid.
As a species, we have produced a total of 8.3bn tonnes of plastic, only 9% of which has ever been recycled. And according to researchers, this statistic is likely inflated. As Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, which campaigns against the illegal waste trade, put it: “It’s a complete myth when people say we are recycling our plastics.”
The truth is, we can’t trust the ruling class. The same crooks who feed us horsemeat and call it beef burn our plastics and call it recycling.
If we want to have any chance of resolving the climate crisis – or the million other problems faced by workers, the youth, the oppressed, and the vulnerable – we need a complete revolution in how our society is run.
In short, we need a socialist economic plan, where production is rationally, democratically, and sustainably planned on the basis of the needs of society and our planet.
The reality is that we have the technology needed to recycle plastics. There are robots capable of sorting plastic at a much higher rate and accuracy than humans. And technology has recently been developed capable of recycling all plastics, even those that previously could not be processed.
The problem, as always, is the capitalist system, which puts profit above all else. Individual solutions won’t cut it. We need to consign capitalism to the dustbin of history and fight for a clear socialist alternative.