Environment Behaviour / neuroscience Finding your path Purposeful work


Ros Wynne-Jones, Senior Columnist at the Daily Mirror, sees a disturbing vision of our plastic future while on holiday in Sri Lanka.

22 February 2023 • 5 min read

Walking on the beach on the southern shore of Sri Lanka is tantalisingly close to being in paradise. The perfect, early morning light is fringed by coconut palms. The golden sand stretches lazily away to the wild, raging, rainy season Indian Ocean.

But then you see that something is wrong. Every wave is sick, vomiting up plastic. Coca Cola bottles, water bottles in different scripts and languages. Flip-flops. The deadly rings that make a six-pack. Straws, lids, shopping bags, polystyrene, more bottles.

The last time I was in Sri Lanka was 18 years ago. I don’t remember any plastic on its beaches. Now, it’s unmissable. Even when we clear the beach, when we walk back again there’s a new line of plastic detritus spat contemptuously by the waves. This is not Sri Lankans’ rubbish. There are uninhabited islands full of plastic out there in the ocean. It’s our rubbish. Thrown away unthinkingly, or badly recycled, or blowing off rubbish dumps and down rivers and flowing from seaside bins and beaches, and left to float like a massive collective message in a bottle that simply says ‘WTF’.

Greenpeace estimates a truckload of plastic ends up in our oceans every minute. A staggering 12.7 million tonnes of plastic in our oceans every year. A shocking 90% of seabirds and one in three turtles, have ingested plastic. No wonder the sea is raging.

Like lots of families, ours watched Blue Planet in horror last autumn – and was inspired enough to spend part of our summer holiday volunteering at the Mighty Roar Turtle project at the very bottom tip of the Indian subcontinent in Sri Lanka. It was beautiful and challenging, and also profoundly disturbing, watching heavily pregnant turtles desperate to lay eggs heading back out to sea because the beach was too dirty. We spent the days cleaning their nesting areas, only to walk back along after filling up the seawater tanks for injured turtles and see a shoreline of plastic washed up once more.

“How many times would we have to clean the beach for the plastic to stop hurting the turtles?” my six-year-old asked me as we walked along one day. At that moment, the answer seemed infinite. Even if single-use plastic stopped today, how long would all the plastic we’ve already dumped take to wash up? Ten years? 100? Americans alone are using a staggering 500 million plastic straws a day.

Yet somewhere on the other side of the world – and in nearby parts of the world, in India – in Coca Cola’s HQ in Atlanta, and Evian’s in Paris, and Nestle’s head office in Switzerland, there you are pondering new ways to get people to buy even more of your plastic-clad products, even knowing what they are doing to the environment. You know it the way that the disposable fashion business knows that small children stitch garments, and battery chicken farmers know their hens are malformed, and the way that coal barons know they are choking children.

And this is the mystery. You aren’t a bad person. You didn’t grow up dreaming of giving the guts of your life to maximising the profits of an industry that is poisoning the planet. You didn’t think, ‘I wish I could sell a product whose empty bottle would endanger the beautiful turtles of Sri Lanka.’

We live in a time of social disconnect. We have to. If we truly allow ourselves to think purely about the reality of climate change, we’d all be tearing down airports and power stations with our bare hands. Instead, we are building more runways. We think we can keep paying it forward, leaving that dirty black smoke for a future generation to clean up. We think we can keep running, even if it’s towards a world that only has sea turtles stuffed in glass cases and in history books.

But of course, in truth, the capitalist growth model is killing us. It’s programmed to do so, like a voracious tapeworm whose greed will ultimately destroy its host. And like a particularly clever tapeworm, at the moment it is convulsing itself – shapeshifting – to look as if it is changing its ways. Every corporate in the world is currently recycling itself into newly innovative products and packages. Look at Adidas, with its recovered-marine-debris shoes, “spinning the problem into a solution” (note the word ‘spinning’). Soon the world could be shod in recovered marine debris shoes, that would still have to go somewhere when someone decided to stop wearing them after one summer. Ok, yes, I want a pair – but guess what, none of those shoes would have stopped Adidas making other shoes.

Stopping that tapeworm is a collective project, and it’s tempting to see consumers as the solution – but we a living part of the organism, part of the tapeworm itself. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that consumers are a democratic entity. The more money we have, the more we have power to consume and therefore have power over brands. That’s an old school power balance.

It’s like relying on the Victorian factory owners to provide for poor children, the way they used to before the foundation of the welfare state, which was fair and paid for by taxation. In the consumer-saves-us model, it’s the non-consumers who do the least environmental damage – can’t fly, don’t overbuy products, reuse and make do – and yet have the least power.

Ethical consumers can lead the way but we need governments, grassroots campaigns and democratised organisations like trade unions to enforce change. Because we know you’re doing a wonderful line in recyclable bottles, and we know you’re supporting girls’ education in Tanzania, and we know you’re planting a million trees in the Borneo rainforest. But at the same time, you are still producing these millions and millions of plastic bottles, with no intention of really dealing with them.

You’re like Facebook, that wants to say it’s doing all these groovy things for kids in Africa but can’t apparently pay its basic taxes so that kids in the UK have got functioning hospitals and schools with enough books and playing fields to kick a ball on. It wants to choose where to bestow its benevolence. But that model is Victorian. It’s 2018 and we tax you, and we decide collectively where to spend the proceeds, thank you


And that model is also the wrong shape. The economy we want should be what new economics is calling a ‘circular economy’ – regenerative instead of degenerative by design.

I know it’s almost boring to pick on Coca Cola, but they produced an estimated 110 billion single-use plastic bottles worldwide last year – a number that is actually rising year on year. This year Coca-Cola announced a “goal” – a GOAL – to “help to collect and recycle” a bottle or can for every one it sells by 2030 as part of its “World Without Waste” programme.

Are your consumers going to stop you? No, because we want to keep drinking that cheap, caffeinated drink made to the secret formula to which we are addicted. We might buy a rainforest cola, or some other thing I’ve just invented, but you’re probably already developing – and if not help yourself – instead, some of the time. But the mass market won’t afford it. So, Coca Cola is going to have to be told – given boundaries like a naughty child or a recalcitrant tapeworm that tell it, – NO.

Plastic is a pollutant. It’s an emission. You own the cost of clearing it up. And if your business plan doesn’t include cleaning up after yourself then you shouldn’t be allowed a licence to operate. Shouldn’t changing your model of production to something that was safe for the planet be a bare minimum requirement for any corporate?

And here’s the final mystery I was pondering walking on Turtle Beach. You’re a creative, right? You’re a good person. You do loads of good in your spare time. You understand beauty. You’re a solutions person. You can make beautiful things happen out of thin air. You’re a radical actually. A trail-blazer. So, is it ethical consumers’ business to fix this or is it yours? Over to you.

Behaviour / neuroscience Environment Finding your path Purposeful work

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