Wherever we’ve looked for plastic on the Earth, we have found it, from fragments in the ice core at the Antarctic, to an entire carrier bag discovered in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest ocean trench. But still global plastic production increases. This year we will produce 320 million tonnes of new plastic from oil. So where will it go and what can we do about it?
Since the 1950s, when plastic consumption really began, humans have produced 8.3 billion tonnes of it, the weight of one billion elephants. Around 9% of plastic waste has been recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% has accumulated in landfills or the wider environment. That means nearly all the plastic that has ever been produced is still with us in the form of pollution.
If that weren’t enough to grapple with, there’s the 8–12 million tonnes of plastic that evades waste systems and ends up in the oceans every year. Oceanographers have tracked plastic waste for thousands of miles. When you think of the shape and light weight of cigarette lighters, bottle caps and toothbrushes, it’s almost as if they have been made for these incredible voyages.
By 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Photograph © Rich Carey/Shutterstock.com
Eventually, buoyant plastic is inclined to settle in floating islands of trash. The most infamous congregation of plastic is a gyre of debris between San Francisco and Hawaii, dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A study published in March 2018 found that this vortex of material was 16 times bigger than previously thought. Stretching across 600,000 square miles of ocean, it dwarfs France, is more than twice the size of Texas, weighs at least 79,000 tonnes, and contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish, 99.9% of which is plastic. One item pulled from the patch was found to be 40 years old. Talk about ‘legacy plastic’! However, most of the plastics here are fragments, creating a plastic soup effect in the water. In general in life, smaller problems are better than big ones, but not when it comes to plastic.
Although plastic lasts for centuries, plastic objects do degrade, just painfully slowly. In the sea, buffeted by waves and wind, the plastic fragments into smaller and smaller bits. In some instances we even pour in ready-made microplastics: the cosmetics industry in particular has used billions of tonnes of tiny plastic circles in products such as exfoliators, glitter-based shimmer creams and even toothpastes (many countries, including the UK, have started to regulate against this pollution).
University of Plymouth scientist Professor Richard Thompson coined the term microplastics to apply to pieces of plastic under 5mm, back in 2004. The latest estimates put the number of pieces of microplastic in the marine environment at 51 trillion. A particularly shocking assertion holds that, by 2050, unless we change our ways, there will be more plastic in the sea by weight than fish.
Microplastics are now throughout the food chain. Recently, Austrian researchers demonstrated that plastic was in the human gut. This is a sobering thought, but it must be remembered that it is wildlife, particularly aquatic species, that is experiencing death by plastic directly. Necropsies reveal that plastic pollution has now caused deaths among 700 species of animal, by ingestion or entanglement. Whales are particularly susceptible as not only do they have four stomachs, but they also suck in their prey, and increasingly that means sucking in the plastic soup. Many of these are species that are already pushed to the brink by habitat loss or over-fishing. Will it be plastic that pushes them to the point of no return?
Deforestation: what can we do?
A green sea turtle caught in ghost fishing gear. In 2018 over 300 dead olive ridley sea turtles were found in discarded fishing gear off the coast of Mexico. © Mohamed Abdulraheem/Shutterstock.com
What the world is doing about it
In the longterm we need a complete change of infrastructure to help us to live plastic-free, otherwise our efforts will be no more than sticking plasters. This is a challenge for policy- makers, providers of public services and products, scientists and designers. What has been done so far?
The last straw?
Buckingham Palace was one of the first institutions to announce a ban on single-use plastics (SUPs), including straws and bottles, on royal estates, reportedly at the behest of the Queen, who was moved to act after watching Blue Planet II. The BBC and several other institutions have also announced that they are phasing out single use plastics on their sites.
Across the UK hundreds of businesses now display a blue refill sign showing you can nip inside and refill your water bottle. There is also a global movement for more water fountains. In the UK councils in Reading and London have committed to building new, state of the art fountains to try and combat the growth in single use water bottles (500 billion are consumed annually across the world).
Eco-friendly cleaning products
The great unwrap
One of the biggest sources of plastic pollution is food packaging from supermarkets. Cucumbers and coconuts (my personal bug bear) are shrinkwrapped and readymeals often come in black plastic trays that are difficult to recycle. More than 100 mainstream retailers and producers have now come together in the UK Plastics Pact to try to tackle this.
Policies and protocols
The European Parliament has voted to ban single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery and cotton buds from the EU by 2021. The single-use plastic straw – in use for a matter of minutes - has been a particular target across the world. Disability campaigners are fighting to ensure that customers with particular needs will still have access to plastic straws, reserved for their use. In Kenya a plastic bag ban was thrown out by opposing politicians three times, but finally passed in 2016 where it has had a major effect on decreasing plastic pollution.
In the 2018 autumn Budget the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, introduced a tax on companies that manufacture and import plastic packaging unless it contains at least 30% recycled plastic. Further reforms are expected to overhaul the whole way that plastic packaging is placed on the market and recycled in the UK, with more emphasis on producers of plastic paying for collection and recycling.
Cleaning the seas
Several worldwide initiatives are attempting to remove legacy plastic from the sea. A 600-metre ocean-going array described as a ‘floating pipe’, with a three-metre skirt, to trap plastic (but not jellyfish), using ocean currents, has been built in Delft, Holland, by The Ocean Cleanup, and deployed off the coast of San Francisco to see how much plastic it can remove.
Meanwhile, 10% of plastic in the marine environment is attributed to fishing waste, predominantly nets and lines. Many are abandoned at sea – forming so-called ‘ghost gear’. The organisation Healthy Seas works with expert divers to recover this pollution and recently hauled up a two-tonne fishing net (washed away from a fishing farm a decade earlier) in waters around the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. That net, along with other ghost gear, is transformed into Nylon 6, a regenerated fibre, and used in clothing and carpets.
Make your home more eco-friendly
Where we can’t reduce or forgo plastic, can we make plastic that biodegrades, leaving no harmful residues? Some claim biotransformative plastics are the answer. This technology alters mainstream oil-based plastic at a molecular level, designing the plastic for recycling but allowing all types of biodegradation wherever the plastic ends up.
A grey seal has been caught in a section of discarded fishing nets in Norfolk. It is estimated that at least 10% of ocean plastic is from the fishing industry. © Kev Gregory/Shutterstock.com
Turning the tide – what you can do
I believe we can turn the tide on the plastic pandemic, but we need to act now and, because there is such a flow of plastic into our lives, it needs to start at home.
You’ll be familiar with the mantra ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. But to deal with today’s reality, I push ‘recycle’ right to the end of my list. In the UK we have capacity to recycle only around 7% of our plastic packaging on home soil. UK householders generate an estimated 235 billion plastic items every year, resulting in an extraordinary amount of plastic on the move, exported to countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, which do not have any meaningful recycling infrastructure.
How to recycle electronics
Forget the three Rs – use eight Rs
RECORD, REDUCE, REPLACE, REFUSE, REUSE, REFILL, RETHINK – and only then RECYCLE. I have worked with families and waste professionals over many years to shape these into strategies. Here’s my overview.
Spend at least two weeks using a simple chart to RECORD the plastic in your life. You should note every bit of plastic, where it came from and whether or not it is single use or has any long-term value. Treat this exercise as you might a diary; it is part of getting control of your bin!
Now you’re ready to REDUCE, beginning with the obvious useless packaging. Ban single-use products. Single-use cups (in the UK we generate 2.5 billion a year and they are lined with plastic) and plates should have no place in your world. REPLACE any habits such as on-the-go coffee by carrying refillable coffee cups and water. If you eat on the go a lot, carry cutlery. Be prepared!
Thanks to the plastic-bag tax, you’ll already be in the habit of REFUSING plastic bags and instead carrying your own reusable bag. Now extend this to other plastic you don’t need. Whenever possible, ask for receipts to be emailed to you (paper receipts are coated in BPA, a form of plastic).
Prioritise loose fruit and veg when shopping, and swap products that come in plastic pouches (and other over-engineered packaging) for tins, jars and boxes. Jars are great because they can be endlessly REUSED. If you can’t help buying plastic – and some products are now only available in plastic – go for the pot or tray that can be washed out and reused in some way, even if it’s just for grandchildren’s paints or growing seedlings.
From glass milk bottles to rows of clip-top jars full of dry goods, REFILL culture is back in vogue. Older generations have an advantage here as they tend to know what works. When it comes to the art of the refill, Tupperware remains a great friend, and containers are now accepted by mainstream supermarkets on their fish and meat counters, displacing the need for polystyrene packaging that cannot be recycled easily.
Reusing single-use plastic in the garden
It is critical to RETHINK plastics, beginning with those that are hidden in products such as tea bags, face wipes and items that look recyclable but aren’t. Many gift-wrapping papers tick this box. They are often made of metallised paper, which means that they cannot be recycled through a standard paper mill. Why not switch to reusable material wrap or gift bags that can be reused?
Finally, be the best and most ambitious recycler you can be. Washing out empties and adhering to your local authority’s (LA) rules mean you’re less likely to have your recycling rejected. LAs find it easy to sell clear, plastic bottles in global markets, so prioritise these. Some people try to be neat by folding crisp bags and straws into bottles, but avoid this. Recycling centres sort by weight and this will confuse the technology and may end up with the bottle being rejected.
After you’ve tackled your own plastic consumption, you can plug into the global movement. A really great way of getting to grips with plastic and the natural world is to take part in a beach clean. These gather evidence as to how much of our plastic and what types end up in the sea. The Marine Conservation Society (mcsuk.org, 01989 566017) organises spring and autumn beach cleans across the UK.
Turning the Tide on plastic
Lucy Siegle is the author of Turning the Tide on Plastic (Orion, £12.99).