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Plastic kills – let's stop treating it like a normal part of modern life

British seafood eaters may ingest more than 10,000 pieces of plastic each year.

A lot has changed since I first set up shop on the King’s Road more than 40 years ago. The world is a lot smaller, with technological innovation and instant communication paving the way for the unstoppable force of globalisation. The way we live as consumers has changed too. We have become increasingly addicted to acquiring vast quantities of stuff, with little thought spared for the quality of what we are buying. The best thing I’ve ever said is: “Buy less, choose well, make it last”.

As we’ve acquired more and more things, our planet has suffered terribly. In the 1950s, mankind produced less than two million tonnes of plastic waste. Fast forward 60 years and we are getting through more than 320 million tonnes each and every year. Unsurprisingly for a material that can remain in the environment for more than 1,000 years, plastic has wreaked havoc on our once pristine planet.

Go to any beach and it won’t take you long to find a washed up plastic bottle, perhaps discarded by its owner decades ago. The average time for a plastic bottle to degrade is at least four hundred years, ensuring the food and drink we consume now will taint the environment for centuries.

But this is not just about aesthetics - plastic kills. Death by plastic packaging has become an increasingly realistic prospect for the very flora and fauna that make our planet so special. Around a million seabirds choke to death on throwaway packaging each year, with at least 100,000 marine mammals falling prey to the scourge of ocean plastic.

The oceans are now so full of man-made detritus that our health is being put at risk too. About a third of fish caught off the coast of the UK now contain traces of plastic. Some plastics contain diethylhexyl phthalate, which is toxic and thought to be carcinogenic. When you bear in mind that British seafood eaters may ingest more than 10,000 pieces of plastic each year, it’s obvious that plastic has been a complete disaster for health.

We have to stop using plastic as if it is a completely harmless intrinsic part of modern life. After dodging the issue for decades, urgent action is long overdue.

I know what can be achieved when ordinary people come together to push for a more just world. At the 2012 London Paralympics Closing Ceremony I launched Climate Revolution – a campaign aimed at halting climate change. By bringing together a powerful coalition of activists, businesspeople and celebrities, we have helped to raise awareness of one of mankind’s gravest threats.

The unreported crisis of plastic pollution represents a similarly grave threat to our planet’s very existence, and so we are duty bound to act while we still can.

Earlier this year, I teamed up with campaign group A Plastic Planet to call for a shift in attitudes towards throwaway plastic packaging. A Plastic Planet has a single aim – a plastic-free aisle in supermarkets. Currently consumers can easily buy sugar-free, fat-free, and dairy-free, but they cannot easily go plastic-free. An aisle stocked exclusively with goods free from plastic packaging would help transform the way we think about plastic when we shop for groceries. A plastic-free aisle would make it much easier for shoppers to reject goods laden with plastic packaging in favour of more sustainable alternatives.

When people come together to demand change, anything is possible.

Dame Vivienne Westwood is backing campaign group A Plastic Planet’s calls for a plastic-free aisle in supermarkets. To learn more about the campaign, please visit aplasticplanet.com

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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left