Culture Trips

John Oliver on plastics pollution: ‘Our personal behavior is not the main culprit’ | John Oliver

John Oliver kicked off Sunday’s Last Week Tonight with a segment addressing last week’s tragedy in Atlanta, when a 21-year-old white man shot and killed eight people, including six Asian women, in an attack that appeared to target Asian massage parlors.

There was an outpouring of support, solidarity with Asian Americans and outrage over the predictably terrible culmination of Donald Trump’s fearmongering around the “China virus” combined with decades of anti-Asian racism. And there’s been some “terrible reactions, too”, said Oliver, such as Capt Jay Baker of the Cherokee county sheriff’s office in Atlanta, who appeared to sympathize with the shooter and the “bad day” that led to his actions. “Absolutely, fucking not,” Oliver responded to footage of Baker’s press conference. “You do get that this is a press conference about mass murder, right? You don’t get to minimize what happened like that.”

Details of the shooting were still emerging, but “a white man driving across counties to two different towns, going to three Asian-owned businesses, shooting and killing six Asian women in a city that’s only about 4% Asian sure as shit seems a lot more like a hate crime than a ‘bad fucking day’,” said Oliver.

“Asian American and Asian immigrant communities have been feeling extremely vulnerable for a long time and especially so right now,” Oliver continued. “And for a group whose suffering has historically felt invisible to the media and to the country at large, it is important that we acknowledge that pain right now.

“But more than that, dismantling anti-Asian prejudice should be another key part of dismantling the chokehold that white supremacy has on this country,” he added. “Because as we’ve seen since its foundation, and continued to see this week, people will bend over backwards to call racism anything other than what it is.”

Oliver’s main segment, however, unpacked the scourge of plastic pollution and the industry-fueled myth of recycling. Despite the omnipresence of the chasing arrows recycling symbol, the vast majority of plastic is neither recycled nor recyclable. Instead, it clogs up landfills, dumps and oceans, permeating our food intake – one study estimated that humans ingest a credit card’s worth of micro-plastic every week. “Which kind of explains Capitol One’s new slogan: what’s in your stomach?” Oliver joked.

Oliver dug into the history of plastic production, and how manufacturers have peddled the idea, under the guise of environmentalism, that “it’s up to you, the consumer, to stop pollution”, he said. “That has been a major throughline in the recycling movement often bankrolled by companies who wanted to drill home the message that it is your responsibility to deal with the environmental impact of their products.”

This message is epitomized by the national myth around recycling’s effectiveness; despite knowing that most plastic – over 90% – can’t be recycled, the industry lobbied state legislators to require the chasing arrows recycling symbol to be placed on all their products, and encouraged local governments to establish curbside recycling programs. “Honestly, it wasn’t all that difficult for them to convince us that all their waste is recyclable, because we so badly want to believe it,” Oliver said. “Lies go down easier when you want them to be true.”

The truth, Oliver said, is that most US plastic waste was sold to China until it banned plastic imports in 2018; now it languishes in domestic dumps or toxic landfills in countries such as Myanmar, as well as in the ocean. And the scale is staggering: by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean; the giant garbage patch in the Pacific is now larger than France, Germany and Spain combined.

Yet “frustratingly, the plastic industry’s response to all the damage you’ve seen is to make a big show of tiny improvement and then revert to what they’ve always done, which is heavily push the idea that if we as consumers simply tried hard enough, we could make our plastic problem go away,” said Oliver. But “our personal behavior is not the main culprit here, despite what the plastics industry has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to convince us.”

Oliver advocated for thoughtful, targeted bans of single-use plastics (bags and takeout containers), and extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws that would shift responsibility and the costs of collection from the public sector to the actual producers of plastic waste.

The US is one of the few developed countries without an extended producer responsibility law for plastic – “because, of course it is”, Oliver said – though the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act will be introduced to Congress again soon. As plastic production is expected to triple by 2050, “we will need some version of an EPR law to pass, and soon,” he said.

“The real behavior change has to come from plastics manufacturers themselves,” Oliver concluded. “Without that, nothing significant is going to happen.”

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