Round the corner from me there is a short footpath between two streets. It’s a short-cut to the fish-and-chip shop and the cornerstore, and so it has a lot of people walking down it with freshly acquired packaging. Some of it – quite a lot of it – gets discarded along the path. There are always a few tins, plastic bottles and crisp packets strewn across the grass.
The council maintain the footpath by cutting the grass and sending round a guy with a litter-picker from time to time. Unfortunately they tend to do it in that order. Rather than pick up the litter and then mow, the lawnmower guy often comes round first and blows all the litter into tiny pieces which are then impossible to retrieve.
That short stretch of path now has thousands of shreds of plastic buried in the grass, polluting the soil. They will remain there for thousands of years. This is plastic that has travelled 100 yards from the shop, and then will sit there in the soil forever.
Whenever I walk down there, the reality of this pollution hits me. It serves as a microcosm for what consumerism is doing to the planet – immediate convenience for me, long term inconvenience for those that come after us. The pollution of this little path is nothing compared to the beaches blighted by washed-up plastic, the shredded plastic bags hanging in the trees across many developing countries, the clogged waterways, the ocean gyres, the mountains of contaminated recycling exported from the West and dumped in Africa and Asia.
This is what it means to be a bad ancestor. Future generations will curse us for our thoughtlessness, as they spend their lifetimes tidying up after us.
Every day this gets worse, a million tonnes of new plastic produced every day, a fraction of it recycled. We know it’s a problem, and yet progress is painfully slow. The UK government announced a deposit scheme for plastic bottles in 2018, and expects to implement it in 2024. Why so slow?
2018 was the year that the BBC series Blue Planet II put plastic on the agenda, creating a wave of public pressure to reduce plastic usage. And yet, the following year saw 7 out of 10 retailers increase their use of plastic. Progress since has been patchy at best.
As Roman Krznaric writes in his book The Good Ancestor, “don’t we have an obligation, a responsibility, to our planetary future and the generations of humans and other species to come?”