Our oceans, land and air are polluted by single-use plastic. We’re a society reliant on, and obsessed with, plastics. Since its creation in 1907, it’s been omnipresent in our everyday lives.
But today marks Earth Day 2018 and we’re encouraged to see an increased awareness of the issues caused by plastic pollution across the globe.
What is plastic?
Plastic is an organic (carbon-containing) material that is so flexible it can make a variety of materials that vary in strength and structure. It has often been favoured for its durability as, whilst plastic products can be damaged, they will never fully degrade.
Most formed by chemically bonding oil and gas molecules together to make monomers. These monomers are fused into long polymer chains which makes tiny plastic pellets. The pellets are then melted down and injection moulded into the plastic items we use every day.
Where does waste plastic go?
There are three main destinations for unwanted plastic:
Most single-use plastics are disposed of into landfill. These huge holes in the ground are packed with waste plastic and compressed daily. Rain water flows through this waste and absorbs water soluble compounds toxins from it. Together, these compounds create a harmful mix called which contaminates water, acidifies soil and causes damage to ecosystems. Every piece of plastic in landfill contributes to this Leachate for around 1000 years until it begins to degrade.
- The Ocean
Plastic frequently enters our waterways, flowing through our streams and rivers and eventually being carried into the ocean. The currents drags it to debris islands, such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or onto many shores around the globe. There are over of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone. This “cloudy soup” of microplastics often combines with larger items, and bodies of waste beneath the water too which can entangle sea birds or cause stressful, painful deaths when mistakenly eaten.
Ingestion of plastic causes sea life to feel full when they’re not and often starve to death or die from complications. The ingestion of microplastics can also be passed through the food chain through carnivores such as squid, tuna and dolphins who prey on deep sea fish like the lanternfish. Many of these contaminated creatures may also end up in our own food chain.
By far the most preferable route, the final pathway for waste plastic is a recycle plant. Recyclable plastic is pressed into large blocks, washed and then shredded into tiny pieces. It’s these tiny pieces, or pellets, that would be melted down and injection moulded to make a second plastic item. Whilst this is the most sustainable solution, it still poses risks to the environment but is far better than making new plastic.
Microplastics are easy to ignore or forget about as you wouldn’t see them littered on a road or floating in a river. They’re tiny pieces of plastic caused by exposure to sunlight and water, or created as components of other products such as those in cosmetics.
When you drink water, eat seafood (including animals or birds that ate or have been fed seafood), or add salt to your meals it’s almost inevitable that you will be ingesting a microplastic. Once plastic enters an organism’s bloodstream, it will never be processed out and this can cause major health implications.
Plastic and our health
Plastic not only pollutes our planet but can affect our health too. Many plastics contain phthalates and a chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA) which are now recognised as hazardous to public health. Both chemicals present risks to our hormones and reproductive systems.
In 2016 scientists revealed that ‘microwavable safe’ plastic may not actually be safe. When food is heated in a plastic container in the microwave, chemicals from the plastic can leach out into the food from the container. The say there are correlations between heating food in plastic and the following health problems.
- Chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities
- Impaired brain and neurological functions
- Cancer Cardiovascular system damage
- Adult-onset diabetes
- Early puberty
- Resistance to chemotherapy
Calculate your plastic footprint
Many people would have no idea how much plastic pollution they are accountable for per year. To get the precise figure would be difficult, but an approximate estimation using The Earth Day Network’s formula is sufficient in understanding your footprint. You can calculate your annual footprint with this online calculator here.
After learning about the detrimental effects of plastic pollution on our planet, nature and us, and now having calculated your plastic footprint, all that’s left is to do something about it!
Step one: Reduce.
It’s extremely hard to stop using single-use plastics all at once because it has become so normal to use them. By making a conscious effort to buy items with less plastic, you will help to reduce the demand for plastic. Recycling isn’t always sufficient as local infrastructure can hinder how much goes to a recycle plant and what goes to landfill. Large quantities of recycled waste may also end up in landfill due to contaminated batches if there are a high number of people who aren’t recycling properly.
It takes time to make any change, but it is possible to make a difference. Lauren Singer from America is a great example – she reduced four years of waste into one jar!
Step two: Refuse.
Although many places across the globe are now removing plastic straws from their bars and restaurants, or introducing biodegradable options where disposable seems necessary, it’s also easy to refuse a single-use plastic item in many cases. Or even take your own non-plastic alternative, such as travel cutlery, containers and a drink cup. Also ensure you request plastic-free or recyclable products from companies you support so they know what’s important to their consumers.
Step three: Reuse.
Selecting products designed for multiple uses is a way not only to cut cost but to also reduce your plastic consumption, such as considering a safety razor where blades can be replaced rather than plastic one-use razors. There are so many resources and groups now that offer lots of tips on how to replace what you’re used to using with eco-friendly options. If it’s imperative that you do need to buy single-use plastic items then, wherever possible, try to come up with a secondary purpose for them such as oddments that can be repurposed into crafts.
Here’s 23 different ways you can reuse a plastic bottle without refilling it!
Step four: Recycle.
There will be instances where using plastic will be unavoidable. Most UK residents recycle but not all do so correctly. Visit this website to learn about recycling in your area.
We hope we’ve stripped plastic of its appeal to you and helped you better understand why we should all be reducing, refusing or reusing single-use plastics in our everyday lives!