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Progress and Pollution

The human capacity for self-criticism is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, we can recognise that we have caused harm and do something about it, but on the other hand this tendency can go so far that we think of nearly everything we do as being negative. At the extreme end of the spectrum, so-called Deep Greens consider humankind to be a blot on the planet, which would be better off without us.

Not so for most of us, of course, and at the other extreme there are those who refuse to recognise – or at least try to minimise – the negative impacts of something they have done. Overall, though, there is a clear inclination for people to think that modern life and technology causes environmental harm, and those of us in some of the cleanest environments are often most concerned about pollution.

An issue that has come right to the top of the list recently is plastic waste, particularly in the open sea. This is doubtless reinforced in the UK by the latest Blue Planet series, fronted by national treasure David Attenborough, but this is not a trivial issue. Plastic waste can be very obvious when it is in the form of bags or bottles washed up on a beach or gathered in areas such as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ (for a more objective summary of this, see How Big is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’? Science vs Myth, from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

However, much of the plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces or even micro-particles, and in this form it may be consumed by fish, other sea creatures and birds. Because of their inertness, these particles can accumulate in the digestive tracts of these creatures and lead to their undernourishment or death. It’s not surprising, then, to read that UN commits to stop ocean plastic waste.

This story is about an agreement reached at an environment summit in Kenya. This is not legally binding, but is intended as a signal of intent by setting up an international task force to deal with the problem. Environmental pressure groups, of course, think the action is too weak, and in many cases oppose the inclusion of business representatives in the discussions. For many environmentalists, business remains the enemy.

There is certainly a level of mutual distrust between these two parties. Inevitably, businesses will try to protect their interests in the face of criticism on this or other issues. Equally, campaigning groups are often selective with the truth when a topic dear to them is in question. On the other hand, better and more constructive progress can often be made by cooperation rather than confrontation. Rather than pressurise the plastics industry into submission, working with them to find effective ways to reduce waste is always likely to be a better long term option.

However, the thing that really struck me in the story about plastic waste was where it occurs. Figures are presented for the amount of waste produced in 2010 by country; the top 15 are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, South Africa, India, Algeria, Turkey and Pakistan. China dominates the list with nearly 9 million tonnes of plastic, but even Pakistan, in 15th place, produced about half a million tonnes.

There are a couple of really interesting things here. The first is that there are no rich Western countries in the list, despite the ubiquity of plastics in our economies and our concerns about waste and littering. Clearly, although we may worry about the level of waste produced it is not, by and large, finding its way into the wider environment. A significant proportion is recycled in any case.

The second point is the very wide disparity between the amount of waste produced and the population. China tops almost any list of anything because it has the world’s largest population. But India is catching up fast and yet produces less than 10% of China’s level of waste. Is this because there is less plastic in circulation, is the waste dealt with more efficiently, or is there a cultural difference in how people dispose of waste?

Of course, the total amount of plastic waste reported does not all end up in the oceans. By a recent reckoning, however, about eight million tonnes does go into the seas, where it builds up and persists (Plastic waste heading for oceans quantified). To put it into context, this is nearly twice the annual tuna catch worldwide. And it seems that most of this comes from developing countries, although the EU as a whole comes 18th out of the top 20 polluters, with the USA coming in at number 20.

Air pollution is another high-profile issue in the EU at present. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the real problems are in developing countries. While London or Paris may have their problems, the air in European capitals is already much cleaner than a few decades ago, and bears no comparison to the situation in Beijing or Delhi. These cities are experiencing the sorts of problems European cities had during their own Industrial Revolution and will make big efforts to improve air quality as they develop further.

The people who will still suffer, though, are the largely rural poor who rely on wood or dung as fuel for indoor fires. The levels of respiratory disease and mortality among the women and children most at risk are very high. In the short term, this situation can be improved a lot by using more efficient cooking stoves burning paraffin or LPG, but in the longer term a secure electricity supply would not only lead to cleaner air but bring electric light to improve lives even further.

The fact that pollution is largely a problem of emerging economies and the developing world tells us that it is prosperous and highly developed societies that manage issues of pollution most effectively. Economic development is the solution, not the problem.