‘Single-use’ was named 2018’s word of the year by Collins, largely down to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II– a series which shocked the public with its exposure of the horrific effects of plastic pollution on marine life. Attenborough’s much-loved documentary gave rise to a necessary call-to-action to protect our ecosystems by reducing plastic waste. ‘Save the turtles’ was a commonly used phrase within the campaign to ban plastic straws: a movement which gained momentum because of collective action and as a result, the government have committed to a ban on single-use plastics by 2021. Whilst this is a great achievement, what people forget is that plastic is only one problem in an overwhelming sea of entrenched values and systems which are driving us towards the end of humanity. 

The focus on reducing plastic waste overshadows the wider landscape: global carbon emissions are set to increase by 3% this year, fracking continues, sea levels are rising, the effects of hurricanes are being made worse by global warming. These are all factors that need to be addressed urgently as we’re on the brink of catastrophe. According to the Carbon Majors Report, 100 corporations make up 71% of global emissions. The single-use plastics campaign is a distraction from the real damage being done by the government and corporations. 

The government gets away with a continuation of these destructive systems because we have been led to believe that saying no to a plastic straw when ordering a drink and remembering to bring your Keep-Cup will to ‘save’ the environment. This illusion that we can tackle climate change through individual action is a damaging product of neoliberalism. In fact, it will take a complete overhaul of neoliberal values and a movement towards collective action, public control over transport and increased taxes on the rich to implement a sustainable infrastructure.

It’s true that knowing about climate change means we have a responsibility to recycle, avoid plastic where possible, drive less, walk more – but the point is, we can only do so much. 

In a world where homelessness is on the rise, increasing numbers of people rely on food banks, drastic cuts are being made to the public sector (the list goes on), so many people cannot buy organic veg or go vegan as they are struggling to survive.  A single-mother with a child who is crying because of hunger – her thoughts overwhelmed with concern over how she’s going to afford to feed her child, never mind feed herself, and pay the energy bills, go to work, take him to school, pay for the bus should not be made to feel like climate change is her problem.

It’s tiring being told we must ‘do our bit’ when this is not always feasible. Our current systems of expensive public transport, excessive plastic packaging and a reliance on fossil fuels – systems which protect the economic interests of an elite minority – are a barrier to tangible environmental change. We should continue to make personal efforts, but it is the responsibility of world leaders to unite over an effective climate change strategy so environmental action is accessible to all.