OK, this is not a book post – nor is it any kind of a review, it’s one of the rare ‘other’ posts I warned you I would be making.
I recently got a reminder on Facebook of a post I made a year ago. It described the sudden realisation I had come to during a conversation with one of my kids some time previously. In light of the news we’ve had about the pervasive, invasive effects of plastics in the last twelve months I thought it worth re-sharing.
Why is the oil industry so powerful? Why can the U.S. justify going to war, and staying at war, maintaining a ‘presence’ in oil-rich countries, and why does our government keep backing them, even when (Tony Blair) they have to manufacture evidence and ignore the will of the people in order to do so? Just why are these people so all-powerful and so completely untouchable? What about renewables? We know they work, how come the Oil Industry isn’t threatened by them? I used to wonder this, and it wasn’t until one of my kids asked me that I had the sudden epiphany that answered the question for me.
Now maybe I’m late to the realisation, but when it came a couple of years ago it was pretty breath-taking and it’s occurred to me that a lot of other people may still not really understand the answer to this question, not because it’s complex or hidden but because it’s so far out into the open it’s actually invisible in plain sight.
The Oil Industry – or the Petro-Chemical Industry (which includes other fossil fuels) to give them their proper title – have their claws sunk so deep into our day-to-day existence that they are quite literally unchallengeable. And it’s not because we all like to drive our cars, or get buses or fly off on holiday; it’s not even because we like food delivered to our local shops by truck, or white goods from Taiwan by ship. It’s far more subtle and pervasive than that.
All synthetic plastics (save a minuscule percentage now recycled) derive from the fossil fuel industry. So here’s the question: How much plastic do you use every day?
Start at the beginning: were you born in a hospital? Disposable aprons, gloves masks, syringes, canulas, tubing, saline bags, blood bags; the flooring , the light fittings, the light switches, the panic button you press to bring the nurse, the bottles of medication, possibly even some of the medication itself. Are you reading this on a phone, PC or tablet? You’re using plastics. Got a TV, DVD player, stereo, mp3 player, flash drive, games console? Do you listen to vinyl records, CD’s, the radio? Use headphones? All electrical wiring is coated in plastic, and even the most basic of tools, like a saw, have plastic handles – power tools, have buttons and switches and washers, and often cases too.
Got a baby? Whether you bottle feed or express and store breast milk, use plastic spoons, bowls, cups – you’re feeding your baby courtesy of the petro-chem industry. Do you like to clean your house with environmentally friendly cleaners? Still your dishwasher, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, mop & bucket, toilet brush (bristles, even if not handle), sponges all contain plastics. Plastic seals, plastic buttons, plastic edging, plastic parts. PVC windows.
What are you wearing? Unless you’re wearing 100% cotton, linen, wool, leather, hemp or silk you’re wearing petro-chemicals – from the soles of your shoes, to, the zippers on your jacket, and the fabric of the zipper; the elastics in your underwear, the lycra in your leggings to the acrylic your jumper is made out of petro-chem products. In fact if you’re female and you’re wearing ‘nice’ underwear that didn’t cost you a years average salary then you are definitely wearing petro-chems – there’s a whole branch of plastics devoted just to lingerie. Ann Summers wouldn’t exist without plastic. Polyester, which now probably accounts for a bigger percentage of the low-end clothing market than cotton, is actually the single most common plastic on the planet. Check your clothing labels. See how much you are wearing.
Your carpet, the acrylic paint on your walls, the oil paint on your door frames, the little twiddly thing you’re fiddling with as you read this. The veneer coating on your furniture, your picture frames, your kitchen cupboards. Got plants? Like nature? Did you take a picture of it with your camera? Did you put your house plants in plastic pots, did you water the garden with a plastic hose? Keep fit? All that ‘gym wear’ you’re wearing, all the cardio machines you’re using – all chock full of plastics. Hell, even the gun industry got in on the action (Hello Mr.Glock).
Carrier bags, the lid on your coffee jar, the wrapping round your food, the bag your apples are in , the till you checkout through, the uniform of the person serving you. Your glasses, the aglets on your laces, the glue you use, the bowl you wash up in. Your biro, the ink in your biro, your razor, the bottle of shampoo, in fact EVERY cosmetic or cleaning product comes in something that is at least partially plastic, even the eco products. Kitchen knife handles, food processor, pan handles, storage boxes, dustbin, bin bags, the tray the chicken you bought for dinner was on, and the absorbent pad that soaked up the blood. The cover on your ready meal, the parts in the microwave you heat it in, the handles in the cutlery you eat it with, the sofa you sit on whilst you eat it, the rug under your feet (pure wool rug? check the canvas it’s woven on and the thread it’s stitched with). And on your car it’s not what goes into the fuel tank – the light units are not glass anymore, the window seals, the door handles, the dust covers on the tyre valves, the dashboard, the mirror housing, the upholstery. Your bath, your cushion-vinyl flooring. The washers in your taps, the plumbing that drains your bathwater away. The plugs. All the plugs. The socket plates, coat hangers, combs, brushes, hairbands. Jewellery, watches, activity monitors. Teddy bears, fluffy cushions, your really cosy dressing gown and slippers, and onesie. Your daughter’s nightie, her socks, her school uniform, book bag.
The cover of your paperback is coated in plastic to protect it. Glossy magazines, printer’s ink. Your washing line, laundry basket, your pencil sharpener, the window in your shed. Your reading light, the non-slip coating on the back of your bathmat. The toys your child plays with. Lego. Feltpens, crayons. Rubik’s cube, poker chips, the playing pieces in most games.
Almost every single action you take through every single day of your life will bring you into contact with plastics. Even just sitting still looking around you and realising how much of our day-to-day functioning today is facilitated by or dependent on the Petro-chemical industry, you are almost certainly in contact with plastics somehow. In fact unless you live and entirely tech free existence in a field (in which case you’re not reading this) it is actually IMPOSSIBLE to get through each hour, and most minutes, of your day without utilising plastics, however indirectly.
The ‘oil’ industry oligarchs don’t give a shit about you running your car on electricity, or powering your house from the sun – they control the single most ubiquitous product on the planet. They’re not going to take governments to war for the black stuff. They’re taking governments to war so that they can sell you your entire life, from double glazing and cheap clothes to the idea that you can have perfect skin forever, and restyle your home whenever you want.
And they can keep doing it because we consume plastic at rates we don’t even understand. And then we throw it away, and consume more because it looks slightly different, and because somewhere down the line we were sold the idea that ‘plastic’ defines ‘disposable’.
There’s a lot being said over the last few years about the disproportionate power and wealth wielded by those who control the flow of oil out of the ground: a general and growing feeling that they figure far too large in the lives and careers of the politicians who make the decisions around our daily lives: that they need to be toppled from their ivory towers and that this can be achieved – in part at least – by reducing our dependence on oil. Similarly, it might be imagined that the disturbing news of the last year regarding the insidious nature of synthetic plastics would have helped to undermine the manufacturers’ power-base, that they would finally be back-peddaling from a position of responsiblity for such irreversible global damage.
We are deluded.
In December 2017 U.S. plastics manufacturers planned an investment boost that would increase production by 40%, and threats to convert to clean energy become meaningless when the oil companies – predictably – start moving into renewables now they are becoming profitable.
We are never going to challenge the power these people wield until we are prepared to radically change the way we live.
It’s not the politicians they own. It’s us.