Really, how bad is plastic?
Over the last couple of decades, it has become more and more apparent that we are facing a global environmental emergency and climate crisis. Increasing sea levels, melting arctic ice caps, extreme weather and huge and sometimes unmanageable amounts of waste create fear and frustration in many of us. So, to combat this I imagine that you, just like me, try to do your part to make a change a little bit at a time to try and combat or at least reduce the potentially devastating consequences the world is facing. We look to do this in various ways like switching to a green energy company or switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, reducing or eliminating the amount of meat that we eat, taking public transport or by trying to recycle the waste that we produce wherever and whenever possible, especially plastic.
If you have ever had the chance to visit many of the beautiful coastal beach’s around the UK and Worldwide, experienced the sound of the sea washing in and out, the feel of the sand between your toes and the smell of the salty air only to have the scenery broken by specs of various colours of plastic. It can often be upsetting to see a beautiful place spoilt by something unnatural and it can be even more upsetting when you see the larger impact those specs of plastic are having. All over social media and in the news, you can see photos of wildlife being harmed by what we throw away and what we class a disposable. I am sure you will have seen the photos of turtles and fish caught in nets or a whale that’s has passed away due to plastic in its stomach and thought to yourself, surely this shouldn’t be happening? So, what is it that we can do to help prevent this from getting worse and is it something that we can avoid? Just what does it take to recycle plastic or is it something we should not use entirely? Well hopefully this will help, I don’t have all the answers but it might just be a good place to start.
This seems like a good place to start, what is plastic made from and why does it seem to cause so much damage? Well to begin, plastic is made from several different materials and these materials vary depending on the type of plastic being produced. There are over 40,000 different types of plastic and roughly 99% of them are formed from either oil, natural gas or coal, all of which are classified as fossil fuels.
To turn fossil fuels into plastic they use several chemical treatments to bind the different molecules. Once the correct sequence of molecules has been bound together they form what is known as a polymer, hence why most plastics have poly at the start of their name e.g. polythene. This process allows the plastic to be extremely versatile as they are moulded into all sorts of shapes, sizes and strengths.
Now, I am not saying that all plastics are bad. I know that this could be seen as slightly controversial, but the fact of the matter is, they are extremely useful. It would be very difficult to avoid plastics as they are used in pretty much everything in our day to day lives, from your phone and computer to your house and household appliances. It has a lot of medical uses too, including being a vital component in knee replacements and other surgeries. What I do have an issue with, is disposable, single-use plastics! We seemed to have got complacent over the past century and we have adopted a disposable culture. Rather than reusing or making do, we throw away and buy new not considering where what we have thrown away might end up, because, let’s face it, we just don’t know.
So, to put things into a little perspective, considering all of the plastic we see and use regularly across everything, still a staggering 40% of the plastic produced in Europe is single-use packaging. In the last decade, we have produced more disposable plastic that we have done in the last century and this has made it overwhelming for the world to deal with. This is particularly clear in Asian and African nations where rubbish collections, never mind treatment facilities, are often unreliable or non-existent making it difficult to prevent discarded plastics entering the natural world. Due to this, it is estimated that around 8 MILLION TONNES of plastic escapes into the oceans from the world’s coasts each year. Once in the ocean’s plastics can take up to 400 years to decompose and break down which essentially gives it 400 years to eventually trap wildlife or be eaten by an unsuspecting animal.
As it is light, malleable and strong, it easy for the ocean’s currents to move the plastic around the globe effecting inhabited and uninhabited islands and countries alike.
Once in the sea the water, sunlight and wind break down plastic into smaller particles also known as microplastics. You may have remembered a couple of years back microplastic being in news with unsuspecting people not realising that many everyday items like exfoliators and face washes contained microplastic to exfoliate the skin and that these where eventually ending up in the world’s oceans through our sewers. These microplastics are responsible for killing millions of animals each year from birds to fish with nearly 700 species of wildlife being affected. In many cases, microplastics may just pass through wildlife but it is often seen that they can cause blockages or even pierce through organs.
Further to the waste created from disposable plastics, it is estimated that 4 – 6% of all the oil and natural gas used in Europe is to produce plastic with 87% being used for transport, energy and heating. Considering all the houses, cars, buses, planes etc across Europe 4 – 6% being is used for plastic is pretty massive. This in itself will have an environmental impact.
Just to put a spanner in the works though, imagine replacing all of the single-use plastic, like drinks bottles with say, glass bottles. Now, although this may seem better to us when we go and do our shopping or fancy getting a drink from the corner shop but in actual fact, the increased weight and size means it is more difficult to transport and will eventually lead to an increased environmental impact from greenhouse gas emissions released during the increased transport required.
As I mentioned earlier there are over 40,000 different types of plastic, however, these can be all broken down into 7 categories. I’m sure you will have seen the small triangle of chasing arrows with a number 1 – 7 in the middle on the bottom of a plastic container and this represents the plastic category it sits in. You may have heard that this means that the packaging is recyclable or you may have heard that actually hardly any of them are recyclable, well it could be said that both are true, just to be awkward.
The good news is that most plastics, in fact nearly all plastics are recyclable and can be reprocessed by some form or another. The issue is down to cost and the number of specialised recycling plants there are around the UK and the world that can process the less common and less useful plastics. It is also difficult to separate all the different types of plastic and the cost that would be involved in this. Generally, we put all plastic together in our recycling bins at home and can you imagine the effort of going through each plastic bin from each of the 29 million UK homes and picking out over 40,000 different types of plastic, or even just the 7 plastic categories? That’s an immense amount of work. So many councils and companies will choose to pick out the most valuable plastics and leave the rest. Some companies say that they can sort through the millions of tonnes of waste with expensive plants full of different types of mechanical sorting processes but let’s face it, that’s a lot of waste and even the most advanced technology is unable to process it all and I should know, I used to work in the waste industry. Sorting plants just cannot cope with volume and variety of waste products and a lot of the value in recyclable plastic is controlled by the price of oil. So, essentially, when you are paying more to fill up your car at the petrol station it becomes more valuable and cost effect to recycle plastic.
Well, it lies with us, the individual. We need to just take a little extra consideration to the waste that we are producing. Like I said before, plastic is not all bad and there are some simple solutions of ways you can reduce the amount of plastic you use. Use plastic-free products where possible, some things are easy like soap and shampoo, use a bar rather than a bottle. As a consumer you can choose not to purchase the broccoli that is wrapped in plastic and ensure that other items such as cotton buds are made from bamboo rather than plastic. Fill up a reusable bottle with your water rather than continually buying one from the shop.
Or even, just making sure that you actually recycle the plastic you use. Make sure that it is clean and in the correct bin, find out about your local private recycling companies and see if you can drop off plastic there, in most cases they will take for free if it is clean and already separated because they can sell it to processing plants.
The biggest change we need to make is to our everyday lifestyle, being more considerate to what we are buying, not buying into trends or fast fashion but thinking about what we need. Thinking about what is going to happen to our waste and items that we throw away and thinking more about environmentally friendly solutions to our waste. I know it may seem hard at first, but when you get into the swing of things it becomes a lot easier. Just recently Charlotte and I signed up to Growing Well, a charity that supports mental health by growing organic veg. You pay a monthly subscription and collect a fresh bag of plastic-free veg every week, what could be better. Simple initiatives like this are popping up all over the UK and Europe so have a look at what is near to you and over time you will see the amount of waste you produce dramatically drop. Just little changes will make a big difference.