Originally written for Counterfire.
Canada’s largest plastic-producing companies have taken the federal government to court in an attempt to undermine measures that would limit plastic pollution. Those involved in the lawsuit include Dow Chemical, Imperial Oil and Nova Chemicals, and they have been joined in this effort by US oil associations, along with the provincial governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
This group wants the courts to overturn the designation of plastic as a toxic material under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). It is also trying to ‘prohibit government action against plastic pollution, including the legal basis of the ban on single-use plastics introduced in 2022.’ The environment advocacy group, Oceana Canada, points out that the toxic designation, which has been adopted by some fifty other countries, ‘provides the government the authority to regulate plastic to protect the environment and wildlife.’ Moreover, it ‘allows the federal government to develop bans on the manufacture, import, sale and export of six common single-use plastic items (bags, straws, cutlery, food service ware, stir sticks and six-pack ring carriers).’
While the Canadian government’s measures enjoy massive public support and are backed ‘by strong scientific evidence’, the plastic industry is ‘not providing any real solutions to the plastic crisis. They point to recycling as a solution, while knowing full well that less than nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled. Worse, the industry suggests the carcinogen-releasing method of burning plastics as an emerging solution to plastic waste.’
EcoJustice, an environmental-law organisation, will be intervening in the case on behalf of Oceana Canada, Environmental Defence and Animal Justice. They are taking this action because ‘there have been no efforts undertaken by big plastic companies to meaningfully curb plastic waste.’ They also see the lawsuit as ‘another way to delay progress. If business as usual continues, we will continue to pollute our oceans’ and, if the companies prevail in court, ‘we will continue to see whales washing ashore, turtles drowning and more plastics in our food, water and blood.’
The failure of the plastic industry to deal with the polluting effects of its products, and its impeding of efforts to address the problem, poses an enormous threat. The environment group, SOS Future, explains that: ‘Synthetic plastics are made from finite and polluting fossil fuels. And making them involves the burning of yet more fossil fuels. The plastic industry is one of the industries with the highest carbon footprint.’
Beyond this: ‘Plastics don’t biodegrade like natural materials. Instead, synthetic plastics endure for hundreds of years. So plastic is a problem that sticks around. Plastic litter forms huge ocean gyres of trash, killing wildlife and spreading pathogens and invasive species around the globe.’ Moreover, this vast quantity of litter ‘often begin(s) to break down – not into inert materials, but into smaller and smaller micro-plastic particles.’
The effects of plastic pollution are, indeed, having an impact everywhere on the planet. In 2019, National Geographic reported that ‘plastic is proving to be everywhere in the sea.’ On three occasions, plastic material has been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, some 36,000 feet below sea level. The levels of pollution in sections of the trench were worse than in ‘some of the most polluted rivers in China.’ It is believed that ‘chemical pollutants in the trench may have come in part from the breakdown of plastic in the water column.’
An article that appeared in the Guardian last March, noted that: ‘Microplastic pollution has been detected in human blood for the first time, with scientists finding the tiny particles in almost 80% of the people tested.’ The scientific study upon which the report was based showed that ‘particles can travel around the body and may lodge in organs.’ Plastic is taken into the human body through food and water and directly from the air.
Previous studies have already shown that ‘microplastics were ten times higher in the faeces of babies compared with adults.’ Prof. Dick Vethaak commented that: ‘We also know in general that babies and young children are more vulnerable to chemical and particle exposure. That worries me a lot.’ Jo Royle, from Common Seas, noted that: ‘Plastic production is set to double by 2040. We have a right to know what all this plastic is doing to our bodies.’
While the precise impacts of plastic pollution on human health have yet to be determined, there is already evidence that it is having an adverse effect on seabirds. A study has now been published by the Journal of Hazardous Materials that looks at the impacts of ingesting plastic on thirty seabirds in Australia. It found that: ‘Plastic presence was highly associated with widespread scar tissue formation and extensive changes to, and even loss of, tissue structure within the mucosa and submucosa.’ This refers to the lining of the stomachs of the birds.
The study points out that other indigestible materials found in the birds didn’t produce comparable results, so this ‘highlights the unique pathological properties of plastics and raises concerns for other species impacted by plastic ingestion.’ Based on this, it is concluded that ‘the extent and severity of fibrosis documented in this study gives support for a novel, plastic-induced fibrotic disease, which we define as ‘Plasticosis.’
Assault on nature
In the face of such evidence, the attempt of plastic manufacturers to hold up remedial action in court is utterly despicable, but far from surprising. Plastic pollution is but one major manifestation of capitalism’s assault on nature. Evidence pointing to the urgent need to ensure that production, transportation and consumption are conducted in ways that are sustainable is copious and irrefutable, yet no serious effort to change course is underway.
As plastic particles spread out to pollute every part of the planet, other elements of the process of environment degradation intensify relentlessly. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has concluded that: ‘The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.’ Despite such high-placed awareness of the enormity of the situation, global summits come and go without any serious measures being taken to control the corporate activity that is causing an appalling loss of habitat and a devastating rate of species extinction.
When it comes to the climate disaster that is intensifying before our eyes, we know that fossil-fuel companies are continuing down a catastrophic path unchecked. Last year, Bloomberg reported that: ‘Companies invested $58 billion in oil and gas projects in 2021 and 2022 that will only be required if fossil fuel demand grows to a level at which scientists forecast a climate catastrophe.’ Beyond even this: ‘They may pull the trigger on a further $23 billion of investments next year that would help warm the planet more than 2.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.’
To a rational person, it might seem inexplicable that the companies that produce plastic materials would go on polluting the planet in ways that threaten disastrous consequences, or that oil and gas interests would continue to release carbon emissions even as the polar ice caps melt. Actually, however, such conduct is entirely in line with the logic of capitalist accumulation.
The pursuit of profit in this society is engaged in competitively. Capitalists seek to be more exploitative than their rivals and to draw the materials they need from nature as fully and cheaply as possible. The threat of depletion and the impacts of pollution may be understood, but the competitive drive to accumulate is relentless and unforgiving.
When Oceana Canada states that: ‘We need the support from all players, including the plastic industry, to stop plastic pollution,’ they do so with the very best of intentions but they are making a serious mistake. The companies they are challenging will never choose responsible environmental stewardship over maximising their flow of profits.
From this it follows that only mass action can force serious measures to address environmental degradation out of major companies and governments. Beyond this, however, the struggle for climate justice and sustainability must utterly reject any illusions in a greener capitalism and base itself on the need to eliminate the profit system.