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Environment

How can I take action on plastic pollution?

Here’s everything you need to know about plastic pollution – and what you can do to help tackle the issue.

Plastic is causing unprecedented damage to our natural world by choking our seas, damaging wildlife and driving carbon emissions. 

Plastic is one of the cheapest and most useful materials in modern society for everything from plastic packaging to medical equipment – but its durability is also what makes it a disaster for the planet.

It’s estimated that plastic can take anything from 20 to 500 years to decompose, and with more manufactured every day, the problem is growing ever-larger. 

The pandemic has also exacerbated the problem, with a recent survey from Surfers Against Sewage showing that more than half of UK adults said they had seen more plastic than wildlife on their local beaches in recent months.

As well as causing pollution, plastic poses a threat to the climate too. More than 99 per cent of plastics are produced using fossil fuels, according to the Centre for International Environmental Law, and could result in 1.34 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

But all is not lost – growing awareness of plastic pollution means we’re better prepared to tackle the problem. We’ve broken down everything you need to know about plastic pollution, and what you can do to help. 

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What exactly is plastic pollution? 

Plastic pollution simply refers to the plastic that ends up in our environment after it has been used, whether that’s in the seas, in landfills, or even, alarmingly, in the food chain. 

Our growing demand for single-use plastic has now outpaced our ability to get rid of it in environmentally-friendly ways. Half of all the plastics ever made have been generated since 2004, according to scientists in the US.

That means plastic doesn’t only end up in landfills but in rivers, across beaches and floating in the seas.

This plastic pollution puts wildlife at risk, with animals on land and in the sea faced with ingesting, getting tangled in or suffocating from plastic waste.

This plastic ends up embedded in the global food chain, meaning that humans are ingesting small amounts as well.

How much plastic pollution is there?

According to Surfers against Sewage, around eight million pieces of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every day.

On an annual basis, that amounts to 12 million tonnes per year – the equivalent of one million double-decker buses.

In the UK alone, 2.2 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is generated per year. Around 1.5 million metric tonnes of this comes from plastics thrown out by households – the equivalent weight of 250,000 elephants.

Up to 80 per cent of all marine debris – solid materials manufactured or processed by humans which is directly or indirectly disposed of in the ocean – is plastic, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said.Birds from nearly all (99 per cent) of the UK’s seabird species could have ingested plastic by the year 2050, according to Plastic Oceans UK, without urgent action. British seabirds now face a one in five risk of dying from ingesting plastic, according to the charity.

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What impact is plastic having on the planet? 

The impact of plastic pollution on the planet is multifold: affecting both the natural world and the climate. 

Plastics take enormous amounts of fossil fuels to produce, adding to the greenhouse gas effect which is warming our planet – known as climate change. 

Additional carbon emissions are created when plastics are transported around the globe via planes, cars and trucks. 

When plastic is discarded, it is often incinerated, generating yet more greenhouse gases and accelerating the climate crisis. 

Aside from climate change, plastic is also driving a crisis in the vital ecosystems that support life on earth.

Millions of animals are killed by plastics each year, including large numbers of sea birds and fish. It’s estimated that nearly 700 species are known to be affected by plastics, with nearly every species of seabird ingesting plastic accidentally.

Does plastic pollution harm human health?

We don’t yet fully understand the impact of plastic on human health, given the material has only been around for a limited amount of time. 

However, many experts fear microplastics pose a serious threat to human health around the world.

Microplastics are generated when large pieces of plastic break down over time, becoming increasingly small until they measure less than five millimetres. 

Microplastics are generated in several different ways, from fibres in clothes to microbeads found in some cosmetics products. 

Because microplastics are so small, they can enter the human body through water, food and even from dust in the air.

According to researchers in the US, the average modern person may be consuming more than 100,000 microplastic particles every year.

If our bodies don’t get rid of these tiny plastic fragments, they could become lodged in our bodies or enter our bloodstreams and release chemicals which can cause inflammation.

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Has the Covid-19 crisis made plastic pollution worse?

A number of studies have suggested that the pandemic worsened the plastic pollution crisis due to the production of millions of single-use plastic items, such as home testing kits. 

According to a survey of  2,000 UK adults commissioned by charity Surfers Against Sewage, more than half of Brits believe the pandemic has led to an increase in plastic pollution. 

Many even admitted they were culpable – with a fifth of respondents reporting they were buying more single-use plastic items throughout the pandemic. 

Nearly two-thirds (59 per cent) reported seeing more litter in their neighbourhoods over the past year.

How much plastic is recycled?

Plastic recycling has increased dramatically in the last two decades. British Plastics Foundation research showed around 13,000 tonnes of plastic bottles were recycled in the UK in 2000, compared to 380,000 tonnes in 2020.

Around 32 per cent of all plastic is recycled in the UK, the researchers said.

However, many experts say recycling is not the answer to the plastic pollution problem – with Prime Minister Boris Johnson even commenting in 2021 that plastic use reduction should be prioritised over recycling. 

What plastic can be recycled?

The kinds of plastic you can recycle will depend on the local authority in which you live, meaning you should check on your local authority website before depositing an item in your bin or box. 

There are some plastic products which can generally be recycled at home in most areas, such as milk cartons and plastic trays for food items. 

Some local authorities offer special collections for things like furniture or clothes, while a number of supermarkets now offer stations for recycling soft plastics like plastic bags, which can’t be placed in ordinary recycling bins.

Items usually have a label indicating whether, and how, items can be recycled, so you should use this as a guide.

What plastic can’t be recycled?

While every type of plastic could technically be recycled, a mix of economic and logistical factors mean that some can’t be recycled in practice.

This includes many types of food packaging, like crisp packets, salad bags and plastic wrap that fruit is often sold in.

The reason they can’t be recycled is that the packaging is made using layers to store food in airtight conditions, meaning the plastic is hard to break down.

However Tesco recently announced a new scheme for recycling harder to process plastics like bread packaging, crisp packets and pet food pouches, starting with collection points at 171 stores across the south west of England and in Wales.

It is very difficult to recycle gift wrap made from plastic, takeaway boxes, coffee cups and plastic used for guttering.

What are the best ways to tackle plastic pollution? 

If using plastic is unavoidable, try to make sure the kind that you’re buying is recyclable, or think about the ways in which you could re-use the item at home.

Many “refill shops” now offer ways to refill on groceries like milk or cereal without the packaging, and allow you to bring your own containers for re-use. 

If you’re recycling plastic at home, make sure to check local authority guidelines on what can and can’t be recycled, or you may compromise the waste authority’s ability to actually recycle the items in your box or bin. 

It helps to squash items like water bottles before recycling them as this saves space and makes them easier to transport.

This interactive tool from Recycle Now allows you to find information on recycling most products you’ll find around your home.

What else can I do to help cut plastic pollution?

The best way to fight plastic pollution is to avoid buying it in the first place – and seeking out less harmful materials wherever possible.

There are several common items you could replace in order to reduce your plastic use, including a reusable water bottle or coffee cup, a bamboo toothbrush or sustainable food wrapping material instead of cling film. 

Loose products, like fruit and vegetables, can be bought without using the small plastic bags provided in shops. Toiletry products which come in plastic bottles such as shampoo and soap can often be replaced using solid bars.

And while ‘bags for life’ sold by supermarkets are better for the environment than single-use bags, they are still made from plastic and will eventually end up in landfill, so it’s better to use a shopping bag made from more sustainable or durable materials.

If you want to fight plastic pollution and stay active at the same time, Surfers Against Sewage’s ambitious national beach cleaning initiative could be for you.

The Million Mile Clean will see up to 100,000 volunteers help clean up one million miles of beach, land and river in 2021. The project is aimed at getting people to clean up their local areas as lockdown restrictions ease, with the first events scheduled for the week of May 15.

Visit the Million Mile Clean website to find your local clean. If there isn’t one, Surfers Against Sewage will give you all the gear you need for up to 30 people to take part.

You can join Surfers Against Sewage’s Strava Club to track your cleaning distance and the charity asks you submit some information – including how much plastic pollution you collected, which brands you saw littered most and how far you travelled – once you’re done.

Of course, one person can only do so much to tackle plastic pollution, so you should also consider joining a local campaign group or organisation to fight the problem on a wider level. 

You could also consider writing to your MP and encouraging them to raise awareness of the issue in parliament or support a ban on certain kinds of plastic.

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