Understanding: Plastic Pollution

This month, thousands of people across the world are taking part in the fourth year of Australian born awareness campaign: Plastic Free July. Aiming to raise global awareness of just how much we reply on plastic, their challenge is simple: refuse single-use plastic for one whole month.

But simple in theory is not always simple in practice; and I have watched in awe over the last few weeks as people think creatively and resourcefully to dodge those pesky plastics! One of my favourite fellow bloggers, Westywrites, has been sharing her plastic free progress; from buying bag-less tea (yes, even they contain plastic!) and bottle-less shampoo, to sending twitter questions to the companies who produce plastic laden products. But as I’ve seen for many plastic free heroes, it’s a tough old slog and can feel like a never ending battle. Plastic is literally everywhere!

But this got me thinking. Just how critical has plastic pollution become, and what can be done to rectify the devastation it’s causing? I learnt a little about plastic bottles when I switched to my reusable water bottle, but I have a feeling its a little more complex than that. Cue some Lazy Green Girl research…

A world of plastic

Since its invention just over 150 years ago, plastic has found its way into a huge variety of products; from food packaging, kitchen utensils and fashion garments to electrical devices, furniture and cars. Plastic literally surrounds us whenever we are, which – in a modern throwaway society – means a large amount of the plastic we buy is not kept for very long. In fact, up to 50% of plastic used will only be used once, and then thrown away. This includes approximately 500 billion plastic bags used globally every minute!safe_image

It’s this single use plastic – made to consume once and easily thrown away – that is putting huge amounts of pressure on landfill across the world; with many countries estimated to run out as little as 4 years from now. And though it is difficult to calculate the exact amount of plastic in our world’s oceans; it’s been suggested that plastic constitutes approximately 90 % of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface; with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. We really are turning into a world of plastics!

Plastic in the oceans

Whilst we may be trying our best to throw our plastic waste in the bins or recycling unit, plastic finds its way into the ocean very regularly; whether through public littering, accidental industrial or maritime waste, or simply it having a mind of its own (imagine a plastic bag in the wind!) But intentional or not, every year 45,000 tonnes of plastic waste is dumped in the world’s oceans – killing up to 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals.

Birds plastic stomach

While large items may get wrapped around animals, cutting off their ability to breathe or grow; smaller fragments and micro plastics can be ingested and lead to toxic poisoning. These smaller plastics are particularly devastating for oceanic biodiversity, and playing a huge role in the reduction of ocean life.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – located just off the coast of California – is the largest ocean garbage site in the world. This floating mass of plastic, which measures twice the size of Texas, contains plastic pieces outnumbering sea life 6 to 1.

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Made to last

Though the amount of plastic produced and thrown away is an issue, it’s actually its durability – the very thing which made it so innovative – that seems to be the biggest issue. Made with a combination of chemicals, oils and dyes – which produce large molecules called Polymers -plastic is truly made to last. In fact, as these polymers are too big to be consumed by microorganisms; items made from plastic can take between 500-1000 years to biodegrade (and some not at all!) To put this into perspective here is a fantastic infographic which shows some common items and their lifespans:

Plastic life infographic

This means that of all the plastic that has ever been produced, is all still in existence in some way or another today!

Biodegrading and recycling

Unfortunately due to its chemical composition and the way it reacts when melted, a large amount of plastics cannot be recycled as down cycled to something of less quality or completely different in form. For example, an average water bottle can’t be “recycled” into another water bottle; but could potentially be industrially melted to produce another plastic product. The money, technology and resource to recycle – plus the plastics which merely cannot be recycled – results in 93% of plastic in US going straight to landfill; with the UK equally low due to lack of facilities in recycling units.

Though modern innovation has seen a rise in Bioplastics – which include plant based ingredients – there is a misconception that this means they are completely biodegradable. In fact, currently there are not any independent standards for what “biodegradable plastic” means, and some plastics claiming to be ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ may actually take many years to decompose or may require special high-heat composting facilities to do so. Though research continues and bioplastics continue to be a potential solution to the war on plastic pollution.

What we can do

It is unfortunately impossible to remove all the plastic from the ocean, and landfill site on earth is not limitless. So, the only thing we can do is to reduce the amount of plastics we consume in the first place!

bsas-plastic1-copyright-e_siirila

Here are 5 simple things we can do to help:

  1. Refuse to use single use plastics. Carry reusable bags and water bottles, buy fresh produce without unnecessary packaging or simply buy less in general!
  2. Reduce the amount of plastic you use. Simple buying in bulk or buy items which use limited packaging.
  3. Reuse what you already have. Don’t be shy to carry your own cutlery or Tupperware box to avoid using single use plastic.
  4. Recycle where possible, or up-cycle if you are feeling creative.
  5. Help to clean up a local beach, woodland or park. By taking a few hours out to clear up a local space, you will help to look after the local wildlife too.

 

More reading/watching

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHg291KeFls

Natural Resources Defence Council: http://www.nrdc.org/oceans/plastic-ocean/

http://plasticpollutioncoalition.org/

http://www.plasticfreejuly.org/

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