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Environment

How bad is plastic pollution – and what can I do about it?

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

Plastic pollution is just about everywhere in the modern world. From beaches to roadsides and even the furthest reaches of the ocean, this toxic material has done a huge amount of damage to the planet.

The world has a serious plastic problem, with vast amounts of the material now pervading all corners of the globe.

We began using plastic because of its immense usefulness and durability, with the material used for everything from packaging to keep food fresh to sterile medical equipment.

Yet it’s only in recent years that we’ve realised just how damaging this durability can be. Plastic can take hundreds, even thousands of years to naturally degrade in the environment. 

As well as cluttering up and damaging the environment, new plastic damages the planet – as manufacturing it requires burning fossil fuels. 

By 2030, the creation of plastic could result in 1.34 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Centre for International Environmental law.

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It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of a problem so large, but it’s not too late to reverse some of the damage plastic has done. 

All of us have the tools to begin solving the problem – so here’s your guide to getting started. 

How does plastic cause pollution?

When plastic was invented, it was revolutionary. 

Previously, humans had relied on natural materials like wood in manufacturing, which were always finite. Now for the first time, mankind could create new materials for themselves. 

What we’ve only realised in recent years, however, is that extensive use of plastic is harmful to the planet. In the past few decades, we’ve consumed plastic at levels never seen before, and have ended up with excessive pollution as a result.

Many of our plastic items today are “single use”, meaning they’re designed to be thrown away after they’re used just once. Coffee cups, cotton earbuds and plastic packaging are just a few examples. 

The demand for single use plastic now outstrips our ability to recycle it in a sustainable way. According to scientists in the US, half of all the plastic ever made has been created since 2004.

Most of the time, when we throw plastics away, they end up in the natural environment. That could include landfill, the sea or city streets, even though a lot of it could be recycled.

This plastic then goes on to damage the environment and the animals that rely on it in a multitude of ways – including humans. 

What are the effects of plastic pollution?

Plastic pollution has several negative effects on climate change and the natural environment.

Producing plastic in the first place requires the burning of fossil fuels, meaning the manufacturing process adds to our greenhouse gas problem. 

Further carbon emissions are produced when plastics are transported around the world via cars, trucks and planes. 

And when that plastic is thrown away? Often it’s incinerated, meaning – you guessed it – yet more carbon emissions released into the atmosphere. 

Plastic is also disrupting ecosystems around the world.

Millions of animals, for instance, are killed by plastic every year. This includes sea birds and fish, who often mistake plastic for food and ingest it. 

When an animal’s stomach is full of plastic it often thinks it is full, neglecting to eat and eventually dying of starvation.

Wildlife can also suffocate or become entangled in plastic waste. 

When larger pieces of plastic break down they turn into microplastics, which are particles sometimes small enough to penetrate human lungs.

Microplastics have been found in our food chain, in human lungs and even in embryos, likely creating health impacts which are still not fully understood.

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 – which are not usually captured by wastewater treatment systems, meaning they can end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans, causing harm to marine life.

Because microplastics are so small, they can also 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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What are the causes of plastic pollution – and how much is there?

According to data from 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, including 14 billion plastic drink bottles. 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 are 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.

Plastic comes from several different sources, but some large corporations are contributing disproportionate amounts.

Each year, charity Break Free From Plastic publishes a ranking of the biggest plastic polluters, with the Coca Cola Company topping the 2021 list. 

Has the Covid-19 crisis made plastic pollution worse?

Several studies have noted that the pandemic may have worsened the plastic pollution crisis thanks to the large amount of single-use plastic items produced throughout, including Covid swabs and PPE.

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. 

A number of respondents even said that they contributed, with a fifth reporting that they bought more single-use items during the pandemic. 

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

How much plastic is recycled?

The amount of plastic being recycled has increased over the last two decades, with research from the British Plastics Foundation showing that 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 people – including Boris Johnson himself – have said that recycling plastic isn’t a silver bullet for the pollution problem.

Instead, reducing plastic production and consumption is the best way to tackle the issue. 

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? 

The most obvious way you can help tackle plastic pollution is to just use less in the first place. 

This could involve changing the way you shop, if this is an accessible option. For instance, you could try using “refill” shops or shopping at a local greengrocer, where less plastic packaging tends to be used. 

Some of the items you buy can also be switched out for more sustainable options. Instead of buying hand soap or shampoo in a bottle, for example, you could use soap or shampoo bars. 

If you can’t avoid plastic, try to think of ways to re-use the item before recycling it. You could use old bottles, for instance, as containers for planting, or if you absolutely had to buy a Tesco bag with your shopping, keep it in your bag so next time you need ingredients for dinner, you won’t be caught without one.

As a last option, you should recycle plastic instead of throwing it away. 

If you’re recycling plastic at home, it is worth reading the symbols on the packaging to see if it can be recycled. You should also check local authority guidelines on what can and can’t be recycled as  you could  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.

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.

A new recycling scheme will also offer another opportunity to reduce waste and earn money too as people will be able to return their plastic bottles and cans into a machine at designated sites and receive cash back.

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. 

plastic bottles
Plastic bottle waste in Delhi. The UK uses nearly 14 billion plastic bottles every year. (Image: Tanvi Sharma/Unsplash)

What is the UK government doing about plastic pollution?

The UK government previously introduced a ban on microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products which came into effect in 2018, in order to limit the amount of harmful microplastics polluting the environment and harming human health. 

It has also imposed a charge on single-use plastic bags in 2015, restricted the supply of single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cotton buds, and taxed major manufacturers and importers of plastic.

Data published by The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says the plastic bag charge has cut sales of them by over 97 per cent in major supermarkets.

More recently, the government announced a further ban on single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, and polystyrene food and drink containers. 

This would be introduced in England from October 23, and is expected to further tackle plastic pollution and waste in line with targets set out in the Environment Act and a legally binding treaty supported by the UK at the United Nations Environment Assembly.

Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey said: “I am proud of our efforts in this area: we have banned microbeads, restricted the use of straws, stirrers and cotton buds and our carrier bag charge has successfully cut sales by over 97% in the main supermarkets.”

A deposit return scheme, similar to those implemented in Scotland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, and certain provinces in Canada, has also been introduced, with a target of collecting 85 per cent of drink bottles and cans.

It will come into effect from 2025 covering England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and will allow people to earn money from recycling. 

“This will provide a simple and effective system across the country that helps people reduce litter and recycle more easily, even when on the move,” Rebecca Pow, the UK’s environment minister, said.

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