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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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