A BBC story asking “Is plastic the new fur?” has been spread far and wide over the last few weeks. It’s a very good story with many excellent points: in fact, consumers are increasingly turning against plastic following alarming pictures and news of its devastating impact on marine life, birds, and other animals. And the comparison is obvious: plastic, just like fur, has become a material that people love to hate – with good reason. Every second – yep, I said second – 250 kg of plastic are dumped into the oceans, and if we continue polluting at our current rate, there will possibly be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
Similarly to fur, plastic harms the environment on a massive scale, kills animals by the millions, and can potentially be harmful to human health. The health link with fur here is provided by the toxic chemicals used to treat fur to keep it from rotting in the owner’s wardrobe – substances that can be harmful to human health, which is particularly scary if you keep in mind the fact that fur has been sold as children’s clothing.
Plastic pollution is one of the most urgent ways that humans are devastating the planet, and it must without a doubt be addressed.
But that’s about where the comparisons end.
Status symbol vs low-grade alternative
The difference between fur and plastic is that fur is a status symbol – a “luxury” material that’s available to the very few people that can afford to wear it. Historically, fur’s exclusivity has been part of its appeal, even if lately very cheap versions, made from cat and dog hair in China, have appeared on markets and in high-street shops, where they have been mislabelled as faux (further proving that consumers prefer not to wear real fur). Throughout fashion history, fur has been used to mark the social standing of the wearer – wealthy women flaunting furs being given by their well-off husbands, the husbands themselves a status symbol as much as the furs, and in recent years, celebrities dripping in furs and diamonds on red carpets.
But plastic? Plastic has always been viewed as cheap, accessible, and a bit second-grade. Think about it: if you wear vegan fashion, how many times have you been on the receiving end of demeaning comments about “plastic shoes”? Contrary to fur, plastic has consistently been seen as a second-rate, low-status material, whether it’s used for fashion or one of its other many uses.
A constant presence
And speaking of which, the ubiquitous material, making up everything from throwaway cutlery to vital life-saving medical equipment, has a vast range of uses that are rarely as simple to replace as a fur coat. Plastic bags and plastic cutlery can be relatively easy to give up – but what about plastic bottles? Tap water is not safe to drink everywhere in the world, and filters can be expensive and difficult to come by. I have a Brita filter jug but haven’t been able to find the correct filters for it for ages. It’s useless to bang on about “buying a reusable bottle” without providing access to something to fill that bottle with. And then there is the question of whether filters even filter all the nasties out.
Also, plastic straws – a common target of the anti-plastic movement, after shocking images of turtles with straws in their noses – are sometimes vital to disabled people’s access to drink. As it stands today, no alternative – recycled, metal, paper, silicone, bamboo or other kinds of eco-straws – is as suitable for the needs of these people as plastic straws are. Compare this to fur, which absolutely no one needs to survive, except some native peoples (which no animal rights activist anywhere has any issue with).
Plastic packaging in supermarkets is absolutely everywhere. Sometimes it seems to me that there is more plastic in most supermarkets than there is food. Unpackaged food is scarcely available, and we could all benefit from taking a minute out of our anti-plastic activism to understand that everyone simply doesn’t have the privilege of being able to get themselves to a farmer’s market or to buy absolutely everything they need there, be it for location or financial reasons. The onus should also be on supermarkets to offer plastic-free options.
Giving up fur, on the other hand, has never been easier. Contrarily to plastic, you have to actively seek fur out if you want to use it. It won’t creep up in your daily life or be the only option for your food shopping.
A collective issue
The end point is this: while fur is something that we as consumers can, and must, give up and take a strong stand against, we need help from companies on the plastic issue. It’s simply not fair or practicable to put the entire responsibility for plastic pollution on the individual, and one of the reasons for it is that it just won’t make that much of a difference. In this day and age, companies must step up their game and offer plastic-free packaging, recyclable options, and reusable materials.
Fortunately, as the BBC story recounts, there are companies that are paying attention. The UK government has banned microplastics from cosmetics, supermarket chains all over Europe are imposing charges on plastic bags, and zero-waste shops offering produce free from plastic packaging are popping up in most developed countries. This is the support consumers need to feel empowered to cut down on, and completely ditch, single-use plastics.
Things you can do to help stop plastic pollution:
Cut down on single-use plastic in your household
Let the government know that you support bans and charges on single-use plastic
Support NGOs that work to save the oceans and raise awareness for plastic issues
Write to supermarkets and ask them to cut down on plastic packaging
Things you can do to help stop the torture of animals in the fur industry:
Don’t wear fur.
If we all do this starting today – ALL of us – the industry will die.
It’s that simple, and unfortunately, that is not the case with plastic.
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Photos by Hermes Rivera, Jeremy Bishop and Danielle McInnes via Unsplash