Residents stand near a giant rubber duck on a lake at the newly developped town of Phu My Hung in Ho Chi Minh city on April 28, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Our plastic waste is changing the geology of the Earth's rocks

The tiny pieces of plastic that we throw away every year are forming a new layer of sedentary rock across the planet - just another sign of our careless attitude to waste.

More than 20 years since they went overboard in a storm, thousands of plastic ducks - part of a Chinese shipment of bath toys destined for the US - are still washing up on the world's shores. Once yellow, now bleached white, the toys have become a boon for oceanographers who have been tracking them to learn more about ocean currents. Thousands are still expected to make it to shore intact; but many will have a much longer legacy. 

Plastic is becoming part of the world's geology. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario and the Algalita Marine Research Institute in California say they've discovered a completely new type of rock, formed when discarded plastic softens and combines with volcanic rock, sea shells, sand and corals.

Camp fires on beaches form a particularly dense variety, but any discarded plastic will do: examples found by the team derived from fishing nets, piping, bottle caps and rubber tyres. The plastic becomes incorporated into rock mainly in the form of 'confetti': tiny particles formed as larger items break down. The result is analogous to sedimentary rock such as limestone, says Patricia Corcoran of Western University: "the plastics I see as grains of sediment ... because they move on a beach in the same way, comtrolled by wind and water."

Much of the plastic isn't even visible. "Basically, there are probably more microplastics out there than there are larger particles - we just can't see them," says Corcoran. "So, do plastics break down to the point where they don't exist? No. they've been shown to exist in a form that is a monomer, so they do still go on, so there is a process of organisms ingesting these microplastics."

Some of these particles come from the most surprising places - who'd have thought, for example, that body scrubs could be damaging the planet? But, in the US, there's now a move to ban the type that uses tiny plastic microbeads - already outlawed in Illinois, and with New York considering following suit. Incredibly, a single tube of facial scrub can contain as many as 330,000 beads, which aren't removed by standard sewage treatment systems.

In 1997, it was estimated that a staggering 5.8 million tonnes of waste was reaching the oceans every year; and in 2005, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) concluded that there were over 13,000 pieces of plastic litter floating on every square kilometre of ocean. The amount is rising, with Ocean Conservancy predicting that 'peak plastic' won't occur until the next century.

Many people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; what's less well known is the fact that this is only one of five rotating ocean currents, known as gyres, all of which are collecting massive quantities of floating plastic - as many as 30,000 pieces per square kilometre. Earlier this month, an expedition by the Ocean Research Project set off from California for Japan, using a high-speed trawl net to gather samples of these ocean plastics in an attempt to quantify the problem.

"The media likes to sensationalise stories, and at some point five or six years ago some media outlet came up with the story of an island of trash, and the concept went viral," says the project's Matt Rutherford. "The truth is there is no island of trash in any ocean. If that was the case the problem would be much easier to solve. If the trash was all in one place we could just go there and clean it up. The reality is much worse than the fairy tale: the ocean is full of plastic trash, microplastics."

Ideas for cleaning up this mess are never short on the ground. The latest, devised by nineteen-year-old Dutch student Boyan Slat, involves a device anchored to the sea bed with a number of V-shaped arms, which take advantage of natural ocean currents to catch pollution at the surface while allowing living organisms to slip under the floating barriers. The idea has been hailed by some as miraculous. But, says Stiv Wilson, policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit 5Gyres, it's offering false hope - just like all the others that have preceded it.

"I find debating with gyre cleanup advocates akin to trying to reason with someone who will argue with a signpost and take the wrong way home. Gyre cleanup is a false prophet hailing from La-La land that won’t work – and it’s dangerous and counter productive to a movement trying in earnest stop the flow of plastic into the oceans," he writes"Every time a gyre cleanup proponent has shown me a design for addressing the problem, the first thing I ask is, 'do you have the money to make 20 million of those doo-hickies?' They look at me with a puzzled look, and I just mutter, 'The ocean is really, really, really, big'."

Nor is recycling the answer. In North America, the annual 'consumption' of plastic is over 148kg per head. And the vast majority of this can only be recycled once, before heading for landfill - where, like plastiglomerate, it will remain for thousands of years. 

Plastic is by no means the only 'anthropogenic' marker showing man's impact on the planet - others include raised methane concentrations in ice cores and improved fertility in soils. It is, though, one of the most enduring - and may one day be one of the most obviously visible to archaeologists. As Kelly Jazvac, assistant professor of visual arts at Western University says, "People are putting their imprint on the earth in a way that can't be changed - it's irrevocable; it's permanent."

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.