At the risk of sounding naively optimistic, there have been days when it’s felt like the enthusiasm to push back on avoidable plastic waste is unquenchable. There are moments when it seems possible that we can ward off the day when there are more bits of plastic in the sea than fish – currently slated for 2050 unless we change our ways. Certainly there’s unprecedented interest in uncoupling our lives from plastic.
Since the start of the year, I’ve been reporting non-stop on our changing attitudes. I’ve been shuttling between plastic-free aisles and zero-waste shops, assessing supermarket shelves and going through people’s bins. I’m now such a fixture at the nation’s MRFs (materials recovery facility, pronounced “murf”), I’ve been issued with a business card featuring a picture of a rat. This – it was cheerily explained to me – I should hand to my GP in the case of unexplained illness.
Obviously we are aeons away from a solution (or even a strategy) in the UK to correct the fact that we’ve been sending off 70% of our plastic waste for mysterious reprocessing overseas for years. Now that China has shut its doors to most of this waste, our plastic addiction and its effects, particularly on the marine environment, have been thrown into sharp relief. Everywhere we’re looking for possible solutions. This week we’ve had an event at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre on packaging initiatives (OK, probably one for the enthusiast) and the opening of a zero-packaging aisle in a Dutch supermarket. Still much to discuss; but overall we are in the middle of an epic awakening.
But not at Calvin Klein or Chanel. To view their recent catwalk shows, you’d think plastic was the great new hope. These shows were awash with see-through capes and souped-up plastic macs accessorised with cloche hats, all made from the thickest, shiniest plastic that positively oozed fossil fuel. Meanwhile, the cult fashion label Off-White has collaborated with Jimmy Choo on shoes and boots with a crackling plastic outer shell.
This is described as a “fresh aesthetic” by the brands in question. But given that almost all the plastic we’ve ever created still exists in unedifying forms, the idea of creating more for use in new applications strikes me as more dumb than fresh. Moreover, those brands who have taken to it seem to have a particular thing for PVC, one of the hardest to handle petroleum-based synthetics of all time.
It also suggests a tin ear to trends within the luxury fashion industry and its supply chain. I was tipped off to the plastic fantastic trend by a fashion “influencer” who was aghast that Chanel would show so little responsibility by manufacturing a desire for a demonstrably unsustainable material. Compare and contrast with Gucci, where the brand, partly driven by a younger fanbase known to prize sustainable values, has invested heavily in sustainability and ethics.
Possibly I’ve missed the point (always a possibility for those of us who hang around more in MRFs than frows). It has been suggested that plastic fantastic collections are a comment on the forthcoming apocalypse, a sort of reworking of the Hazmat suit. If that is the case, it seems perverse to make that point by using a material that can only contribute to the warned ecological Armageddon.
• Lucy Siegle is a journalist who writes about ethical living
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