In attempting to write a blog about plastics, I found myself entering Pandora’s box. There are many aspects to any product that is so ubiquitous in our society, particularly one with considerable caveats. This particular blog attempts to give a brief overview of the problems and a look at those most prominent offenders found polluting our oceans.
Plastic – pros and cons
Plastics are largely man-made materials consisting of very large molecules called polymers; derived from natural, organic materials such as crude oil, natural gas and coal. The process of transforming these fossil fuels requires a serious amount of energy and produces a significant quantity of greenhouse gases (this 2018 OECD report is packed full of interesting data for those wanting to know more). Single-use plastics (SUPs) are defined as those plastics used only once before being discarded or recycled; familiar items such as water bottles and take-away coffee cups. In a 2018 document cited in an April 21 government briefing paper on plastic packaging, it quite rightly points out that packaging is extremely useful for: protecting products from damage; preserving products for longer; preventing waste; enabling products to be transported further; saving space during storage; displaying product information. It makes clear that plastic is an excellent packaging material, and this helps mitigate the significant carbon emissions associated with food waste. However, despite the indisputable benefits to plastic and its relatively low-cost production, the document fails to highlight the substantial problems of this material. It states “there is no such thing as single-use packaging all plastic packaging can be recovered for recycling or the generation of energy”, and my other favourite “Is plastic packaging bad for the environment? No.” The authors have clearly missed seeing plastic waste scattered on pretty much every surface on land and in our oceans, or heard about the potential harms to animal and human health (more on this later).
Disposal and recycling
The reasons that make plastic such a useful material, contribute to the difficulties for end of life disposal. They do not degrade easily and the range of materials used makes sorting and recycling challenging. I attempted to re-evaluate the disposal of my household’s everyday plastic waste and found it to be seriously frustrating; I am still unconvinced that I am putting all the items to ‘best’ use, whether it be recycling or landfill.
Mis-management of plastic waste results in it entering our waterways and ultimately the oceans. A recent article (April 21), from the amazing The Ocean Cleanup non-profit organisation, which are working on removing plastic waste from our rivers and oceans, indicate that 80% of ocean plastic waste can be attributed to over 1000 rivers. A US Federal Government report states that five Asian countries (China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) are responsible for over half of all marine litter. The difficulties of plastic waste in Asian countries can arise from urban areas that are situated close to waterways. However, the UK cannot disregard plastic waste as someone else’s problem. Although it has more infrastructure for dealing with waste, less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled, according to Greenpeace. They indicate the UK produces more plastic waste per person than any other country except the US. Currently, the UK exports more than half of its plastic waste, to places such as Turkey and Malaysia, where it reportedly results in health problems to those living near the dumped waste. They are campaigning to reduce single-use plastic use in the UK.
This recent publication provides a nice summary: “coordinated global action is urgently needed to reduce plastic consumption; increase rates of reuse, waste collection, and recycling; expand safe disposal systems; and accelerate innovation in the plastic value chain.”
Plastic impacts on animal and human health
Marine species and coastal birds are at risk of fatal or partial harm from both entanglement and ingestion of macroplastics (20-100m), as indicated in this article. In one review of scientific publications, plastic fragments were found to impact >13,000 individuals across 208 species and >30,000 individuals and 243 species through ingestion and entanglement respectively. The Midway Project visually depicts the tragedy of plastic pollution on the Albatross, just one example of this natural world disaster. Microplastics (<5mm) from either primary sources, such as those found in synthetic clothing, or secondary sources from the break down of larger plastics, enter the oceans and then the food chain by being ingested by invertebrates.
Components of plastic can pose a potential human health risk, through leaching out of food and drink containers, for example. One such component, Bisphenol A (BPA) is being limited in the EU due to its toxic effect on the reproductive system; it has been linked with recurrent miscarriages and infertility. Phthalates, found in products ranging from personal care to paint, are added to plastics for flexibility; they have found to be endocrine-disruptors with negative reproductive effects (see article).
Before becoming completely overwhelmed with the complex subject that is plastic, we can know that we are probably better off reducing our plastic use where we can, and recycle where possible.
What items can we try to use less of?
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation promotes the circular economy, where materials and products are kept in use and therefore reduce waste. There Plastics Pact Network has a vision with 5 targets, one of which is to replace SUPs with reusable equivalents. According to the European Union, the 10 most commonly found SUPs turning up on European beaches, in addition to fishing equipment, represents 70% of all marine litter. These are:
- Cotton bud sticks
- Cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers
- Balloons and sticks for balloons
- Food containers
- Cups for beverages
- Beverage containers
- Cigarette butts
- Plastic bags
- Packets and wrappers
- Wet wipes and sanitary items
The EU plans to ban some of these products from July 21, where there are sustainable alternatives available. In October 2020, the UK government banned plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds and plans to implement a plastic tax in 2022 to incentivise businesses to use more recycled plastic in their packaging.
So, if you are thinking of re-evaluating your plastic usage, the SUPs seem like a good place to start. Reducing any SUPs within yor daily life, ultimately means there is less waste to worry about. For example, you can replace on-the-go plastic convenient food and drink kit with reusable alternatives.
If you want to be part of a movement tackling plastic waste, then you can sign up with the Plastic Free organisation; they are part of Surfers Against Sewage, a national marine conservation and campaigning charity. You may enjoy Greg Hewitt’s podcast episode on his involvement in the movement and other community action groups.
As with all consumption, a more circular economy, where we buy less, reuse and recycle more, benefits the environment and seems a sensible direction of travel.