Plastic is an extremely useful material - it's light, hygienic and cheap - but it has also become a serious global issue.
Many of us have been naive to the devastating impact plastic has on our environment; we never considered what happens to plastic when we throw it away. We thought that manufacturers, governments and waste-management industries had it sorted, but the shocking images of ocean plastic pollution have shown us that this is simply not the case.
The Problem with Making Plastic
Almost all plastic is made from oil, a valuable natural resource formed over millions of years - yet we have the ability to use it in just months. And, as with all natural resources, we only have a limited supply.
Oil fuels many things, and 4% of global oil production is used in the manufacturing of new plastics.
It's not news that the extraction of oil causes significant environmental impact; disruption to wildlife habitats, oil spills and drinking water contamination are just a few of the many issues.
The plastic manufacturing process creates the by-product carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Released in to our atmosphere, greenhouse gases are threatening our climate by making the Earth warmer.
And that's all before we even touch a piece of plastic!
The Problem with Plastic once used
Plastic is a toxic, non-biodegradable material. It will never break down into natural elements that can safely go back in to the environment.
Once the plastic item is used (at 'end-of-life') it must either be recycled or binned, but as consumers we are learning that these processes aren't as efficient as perhaps we expected.
"There is no such thing as away. When you throw something away, it must go somewhere."
-- Annie Leonard, Executive Director, Greenpeace USA
90.5% of the plastic waste we have produced has not been recycled. This leaves tonnes and tonnes of plastic in landfill, where it will take hundreds of years to breakdown, or to be burnt in an energy recovery facility. But our waste management process is flawed and what we thought we had carefully disposed of (or perhaps flushed down the toilet) can escape to litter our landscape and pollute our oceans causing devastating consequences for wildlife: we have all seen the pictures of animals with six-pack holders stuck around their heads, plastic bags in their gullets or bottle tops in their stomachs.
Plastic pollution doesn't just come from escaped residential waste; a lot of ocean plastic pollution is commercial fishing gear, mainly in the form of abandoned nets made from plastic. In a 2018 study of the Great Garbage Patch, 48% of it was found to be commercial fishing nets. Some have chosen to stop eating fish because of how the industry contributes to plastic ocean waste. There are initiatives to clean up ocean fishing pollution such as those lead by the campaign group Healthy Seas - you can find out more at healthyseas.org.
The Problem with Microplastics
As plastic is broken down, it just creates smaller and smaller pieces of plastic - 'microplastics'. In its smallest form it pollutes our water supplies, farmland and oceans and has entered our food chain.
Microplastics have been found in fish, shellfish, sea salt, honey and beer, and the list of contaminated foods will very likely grow as studies are conducted.
A study by Heriot Watt University found that we consume thousands of microplastics from our homes, much more than via our food. Microfibres are shed from the synthetic-fibre clothes we wear (e.g. polyester, nylon, acrylic), our furnishings, food packaging and even car tyres.
We do not really know the impact of consuming plastic, but given that plastic is toxic, it is unlikely to be good news. And in this micro-form it makes it almost impossible to ever remove this pollution from our environment.
If you want to research more about plastics in the food chain, check out the paper Microplastics: Trouble in the Food Chain (PDF) on the UN's Environment Live website.
Friends of the Earth have published some tips on how to reduce the amount of microfibres shed when using a washing machine: Washing tips
Why do we use so much plastic?
Although the history of plastics can be traced back several centuries, our love affair with plastics really took off in the 1930s. Since World War Two, production has spiralled and is now at the highest-levels ever.
"In the last decade we've produced more plastic than we did during the whole of the last century."
-- Lucy Siegle, UK Environmental Journalist
But let's face it - plastic can be a great material.
Plastic is a hygienic way to transport food, helping to keep it fresh and reducing food waste.
Plastic is a great way to make things lighter and easier to transport, reducing carbon emissions.
Plastic is also a life-saver. Multiple medical uses have been found for plastic from syringes to heart values.
And plastic is cheap.
You can see why plastic has become a global industry. And in recent years, the United States has invested billions of dollars in both oil production and plastic manufacturing with the intention of exporting plastics to other countries. This means our global plastic consumption is set to dramatically increase in the coming years unless we make real changes now.
Why can't we just recycle all the plastic?
We currently recycle just a fraction of the plastic waste we produce, so couldn’t we just increase recycling rates?
Despite the fact that it takes 75% less energy to make a plastic bottle from recycled plastic than 'virgin' materials the demand for recycled plastic is low. There is little incentive for manufacturers to use recycled plastic when virgin plastic is so cheap.
UK recycling plants do not have the capacity to deal with the volume of plastic waste we create.
Until recently the UK has often shipped its plastic waste to other countries for recycling. This is problematic, not only because of the terrible conditions workers endure, or the fact that waste is often simply dumped, but also because these countries have started to restrict their imports of plastic waste. In January 2018 China banned imports of UK household plastic waste which has caused local councils to stop collecting some types of plastic for recycling as they have nowhere to send it.
But the main reason that recycling plastic isn't the answer is because it's not a circular process; a plastic bottle is unlikely to be recycled into a new plastic bottle which will then again be recycled. Plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely like glass or aluminium.
"Recycling doesn't reduce the flow of plastic into the biosphere. It increases it. Precisely because there is the illusion of a solution, plastic consumption remains unabated."
-- Russel Maier, leader in the Ecobrick movement 
What about down-cycling?
Plastics are often 'down-cycled', meaning they are recycled to create a different form of plastic. This is then used to manufacture an item which is often then more difficult to recycle once used. For example, plastic water bottles (PET) are more likely to be recycled into fibres used to stuff pillows or jacket linings than new water bottles - and where do you take an old pillow for recycling?
Other products that make use of down-cycled plastics include car parts, plastic ties, rubbish bins, drainage pipes… But often, due to their composition, the down-cycled product cannot be recycled further, creating a dead-end for that item.
Won't our government just sort this out?
In 2018 the UK Government issued a new 25 Year Environment Plan which includes "working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042".
Plastic items such as drinking straws, cotton buds, wet wipes and disposable nappies have been discussed in Parliament with the aim of changing legislation much like the carrier bag charge launched in 2015, which reduced the demand for new plastic carrier bags by 83%, and the 2018 ban on microbeads in cosmetics and toiletries.
While the government can put significant pressure on manufacturers and retailers to replace plastic products through legislation and taxes, this takes a long time.
In the meantime, we shouldn't wait! We can all make a difference right now by reducing our plastic purchases, disposing of our plastic waste responsibly and by making manufacturers and retailers aware that we are not happy and we need change.
- "Oil Consumption", British Plastics Federation
- "Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic", Nature Science Journal (22 March 2018)
- "Microplastics found in human faeces", National Geographic (22 Oct 2018)
- "You're eating microplastics in ways you don't even realise", The Conversation (8 June 2018)
- "Study: We Ingest More Plastic From Our Clothing Than Seafood, Salt or Bottled Water", Return to Now (2 Nov 2018)
- "A history of plastics", British Plastics Federation
- "Turning the Tide on Plastic", Lucy Siegle (2018)
- "$180bn investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge", The Guardian (26 Dec 2017))
- "All the plastic you can and cannot recycle", BBC News (21 Sept 2018)
- "Recycling options dwindle for councils hit by China ban", Sky News (19 Oct 2018)
- "Plastic Fantastic", Recyclenow.com / WRAP
- "Recycling: The Evil Illusion", Russell Maier (30 June 2016)
- "25 Year Environment Plan", UK Government DEFRA (first published Jan 2018)