Is this the best time to be alive? Accepting that those of us reading this will, by default, be amongst the wealthiest 4% of the world’s population and so, are very much the fortunate ones, for us at least it is almost indisputable that there has never been a better time to be alive. Whilst such a statement may have been true, at the time, for all previous generations, I think it’s fair to say that during our lifetimes we have enjoyed an unprecedented period of the exponential rise in improvements in communications, technology, healthcare and the like, coupled with a reduction in war and conflict. The result is surely that there has never been a better time to be human. But how will we be viewed by future generations?
Earlier last year in our client magazine, I highlighted the growing concerns arising from the amount of plastic pollution in our environment and this is now, thanks to David Attenborough and others, a widely publicised issue. I previously suggested that technological innovations leading to solutions to the problem may be just around the corner and these might, ultimately herald good investment opportunities but it seems that to a large degree, we’re too late.
All of the plastic ever produced was created in the last sixty to seventy years and most of it still exists in one form or another. Approximately 9% is recycled, 12% incinerated and the rest, around 79% stays in the environment, ending up in landfills and the oceans. Plastic that isn’t recycled breaks down into micro-particles which then find their way into the food chain. Even plastic in use is a problem; fibres from fleece and polyester clothing and particles from urban dust and car tyres are major sources of microplastics in the air, which have become so widespread that, according to one report we may be inhaling up to 130 particles a day potentially causing asthma, heart disease and auto-immune conditions.
A Newcastle University Study published in November uncovered evidence that not only have plastics now reached the deepest chasms of our oceans, they are being ingested by the animals that live there – all of the creatures collected from the bottom of the Mariana Trench were contaminated!
Plastic production is predicted to increase by 40% over the next decade and much of the contamination to date is irreversible. The planet and everything on it will have to evolve with the plastic already in the environment and its hard to imagine this is going to be anything but detrimental in the short to medium term.
Solutions will have to be found if we are to carry on producing and using plastic at the levels we have been and I have no doubt that fortunes will be made by those at the forefront of technological innovation and waste management. Such enterprises could represent very significant investment opportunities in the future.
But who is going to pay to clean up the mess and stop it getting worse? It occurs to me that, in the same way that the tobacco industry was forced to pay for misleading the public about the dangers of their product, have those at the forefront of plastic production, including the oil industry been guilty of profiting from something they knew, long before the rest of us, was going to become such a problem? Could we see the coffers of oil companies and the like being raided with huge levies in the not too distant future and what impact would such a move have on the share prices of companies such as BP and Shell, which make up over 15% of the FTSE 100 Index?
In the November Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond proposed the introduction of a Single-Use Plastic Tax to help bring about a sea change to our polluting habits and drive the UK towards becoming a world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic. This is clearly a step in the right direction but could still be some time away. In the meantime, just consider the amount of disposable plastic that passes through your household every week and the extent of your own plastic footprint. How much SUP tax will you be able save in the future?