books waste

Book review: Turning the Tide on Plastic, by Lucy Siegle

Turning the Tide on Plastic: How Humanity (and you) can Make our Globe Clean Again is one of several books on plastic to wash up in the wake of Blue Planet II, alongside No. More. Plastic and How to Give up Plastic. This one’s a little longer and more comprehensive than those two, with a broad overview of plastic and its consequences, and what you can do as an individual to be part of the solution.

It’s written by Lucy Siegle, consumer reporter for the BBC’s One Show and expert on plastic. And it’s written for that audience – accessible and engaging, with a hatful of facts and a can-do attitude.

The book begins with an overview of the problem, describing how “we are living through the Plastic Age”. Over 8 billion tonnes of plastic has been created since it was first invented, of which 9% has been recycled and 12% incinerated. The rest is still out there, clogging land and sea, breaking into ever smaller pieces and finding its way into nature and the food chain.

The second part of the book is a series of steps to reduce your own plastic footprint, expanding on the traditional ‘three R’s’ of reduce, reuse, recycle.  It begins with Record, and suggests making a diary of the plastic coming into your home. That gives you a baseline to work from so you can measure your progress. (My wife and I did this in 2010 and it was a useful exercise. I should repeat it now that we are a family of four.) Further steps look at replacing problematic sources of plastic, or using refills, and finally at new policies and wider campaigns for changing society’s approach to plastic in the first place.

Because of her work as a TV ‘eco agony aunt’, Siegle has a lot of experience on the consumer side of plastics. She has reported on it widely, run investigations and pressed companies for change. The book is particularly good at engaging the plastic pollution problem at the level in which ordinary people encounter it – in supermarket packaging, plastic bottles and coffee cups and the unnecessarily complicated business of recycling. The book doesn’t dig very far into the power and politics of plastic, nor the global supply chains of plastic and waste.

Like the whole debate around plastic, the problem is framed almost entirely around the oceans, as the title and the cover suggest. And yet the second sentence in the book says “Out of the 320 million metric tonnes of new plastic produced every year… eight million tonnes leak into the world’s oceans and waterways.” To which I want to say, ‘tell me more about the 312 million tonnes that isn’t going into the sea.’ Where is it going? It’s not Siegle’s fault that the debate is framed this way, but that’s where my further questions lie, especially given the gobal inequalities around plastic dumping.

Perhaps I should save this for another post so it doesn’t come across as a criticism of Siegle’s book, but there are still so many areas of plastics where there are no alternatives. That’s frustrating. There are some very easy things to eliminate if you’re starting on reducing plastic having never thought about it before. But I’ve been thinking about this for years and my house is still full of plastic. This is the third book on getting rid of plastic that I’ve read in a year, and it’s very clear that the personal consumer approach only gets us so far in a society where plastic is a systemic problem.

Still, even though the real solutions lie beyond our consumer choices, we all need to get our own house in order. And Turning the Tide on Plastic is a practical and encouraging book to get started on that – especially given the deluge of plastic coming at most of us in 23 days’ time.


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