‘There will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050’, says The Guardian. It’s clear that plastic pollution has become a complete travesty. Microplastics are recorded in our freshwater rivers, while toothbrushes wash up on our shores littering entire beaches. This not only looks displeasing, but the waste endangers species with chunks of plastic found in the stomachs of birds (the same birds that are eaten by humans).
How has this happened?
Plastic was invented in the 1860s and in the 1920s it was created for industry. Since then the production of plastic has been on the rise. This is for a very good reason; plastic is a wonderful material that can be moulded and shaped in a way to help industries develop. It also can be applied in hospitals and used for life-saving equipment. What’s more, it is cheap and easy to manufacture.
With its beneficial qualities, it’s no wonder that plastics have overtaken most other human-made materials and to date, we have created roughly 6300 million tonnes of plastic.
While plastics are painted as the enemy we should give them credit. Wrapping certain foods in plastic ensures their shelf life is increased. Food waste has a higher carbon footprint than plastic waste. Therefore, using plastic could be considered environmental because it prevents food from going in the bin.
However, as consumers, we don’t see the food waste behind the scenes at supermarkets. Instead, we see excess plastic.
While campaigning to reduce unnecessary plastics is important, we must also campaign against food waste. Something which has devastating effects on our planet and people (including deforestation, excessive water use, Airmiles, ground transportation and even poverty).
So, what has gone wrong? Why is there so much plastic in the sea?
Plastics are entering our marine environment through poor waste management. This may be from ships in the ocean, fishing equipment being lost at sea or plastics entering rivers in cities and travelling downstream into the sea.
Only 12% of plastic is recycled. This is extremely low. The UK doesn’t have the facilities to deal with plastics here. Consequently, a large proportion is either incinerated (burned) or sent abroad. Most of which used to be to China (4.5 million tonnes in 2015).
However, in 2018 China banned all plastic waste imports calling it ‘foreign garbage.’ Sadly since the ban lots of our waste has been going to other South Asian countries (Malaysia and India).
What to do going forward?
The most important thing we can focus on is following the waste hierarchy. This encourages businesses and individuals to first reduce their use of plastic.
Numerous single-use items are unnecessary and avoidable. Purchasing a bottle of water and drinking it takes moments. Rarely, do we consider the process involved in getting that bottle onto the shop floor or indeed what happens to the empty single-use bottle once we are done using it.
It is also important not to buy numerous reusable coffee cups or a bunch of sports water bottles. Using disposable single-use coffee cups may have a smaller carbon footprint than using a reusable coffee cup a handful of times. Consider the bigger picture and remember to recycle when possible.
Read The recycling conundrum to find out more about what to put in each waste stream.
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