Plastic is all around us and in almost everything we use; packaging for food, drink and household objects, mobile phones, computers, cars and the walls and doors of our homes all contain plastic. Although plastic has many beneficial properties as a versatile, affordable and durable material, it isn’t biodegradable. This means that when it ends up in landfill or the ocean it can take thousands of years for plastic to break down. Some types of plastic also release toxic pollutants as they break down which is harmful to the environment, oceans and marine life.
Around the world, the climate change crisis is forcing countries to reassess how much plastic they are using and how we can all cut down on our plastic consumption. We currently produce 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, 50% of which is for single-use purposes. In this article, we’ve looked at the damage that plastic is doing to the environment, and have provided some easy ways that you can cut down on your plastic consumption too.
How Does Plastic Damage the Environment?
The damage that plastics have on the environment is widespread and long-lasting. Most plastic items take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills. Plastic carrier bags we use for shopping take 10-20 years to decompose and plastic bottles take 450 years. Our plastic consumption is very high; the world produces more than 380 million tonnes of plastic every year and a large percentage of this ends up polluting our natural environment and oceans.
Plastic Pollution in the Ocean
On average 8 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and this is also estimated to double by 2025. And 80% of plastic in our oceans is from land sources! Plastic has been detected on shorelines of all the continents, with more plastic materials found near popular tourist destinations and densely populated areas.
Once plastic ends up in the ocean, it decomposes very slowly and gets broken down into micro-plastics by the wind and waves. The knock-on effects of the large quantity of plastic in the ocean are huge.
Micro-plastics are incredibly damaging to sea life; at least 267 species worldwide have been affected by marine plastic pollution. Micro-plastics and are often ingested by fish, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals which can cause serious injury and death. Every year, more than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die as a result of plastic pollution. As well as being dangerous to sea life, micro-plastics in the ocean are also making their way up the food chain, affecting our food safety and quality. Because fish ingest so many microplastics, these eventually make their way up the food chain and on average, 1 in 3 fish caught for human consumption contain plastic.
Plastic items commonly found in the ocean:
- Cigarette butts
- Food wrappers
- Bottle caps
- Beverage bottles
- Straws and stirrers
- Carrier bags
- Take out containers
How Does Plastic End Up in the Ocean?
Every day around 8 million pieces of plastic makes their way into our oceans, but how does this happen?
A lot of the plastic that ends up in the ocean is the same plastic that we throw away. Our of the 260 million tonnes of plastic that is thrown away every year, only 12% of this is recycled. The rest is either incinerated, goes to landfill or end up scattered across the planet or in the ocean. When plastic goes to landfill, it can easily be blown away because it is so lightweight and often it ends up in nearby rivers or the sea. This is often what happens to the plastic that is littered on the ground too. Unfortunately, this means the plastic that you throw away could end up in the sea, even if you live hundreds of miles from the coast.
Illegal waste disposal is also a huge contributor to the amount of plastic that is in the ocean. Products such as wet wipes, sanitary products and cotton buds which are often flushed down the drain also contribute to the amount of plastic in the ocean.
As the demand for plastic increases, ocean pollution will continue to get worse, as will the need for beach cleanups which will require significant amounts of funding. Reducing our consumption of disposable plastics is the only feasible way to tackle the issue.
What Are We Doing to Cut Back on Plastic?
Over the past few years, measures are being taken worldwide to reduce our plastic consumption and cut down on our production of single-use plastics. In 2018, the UK enforced a ban on selling products containing microbeads, which includes some face scrubs, soaps, toothpaste and shower gels; the UK’s ban on microbeads was one of the toughest enforced. In 2015, the UK introduced a charge on plastic carrier bags in an effort to reduce the number of bags contributing to landfill. In 2020, many countries are in the process of banning more single-use plastic items, such as plastic straws and cotton buds.
10 EASY Ways to Reduce Your Plastic Consumption
Whilst legal changes to our plastic consumption can only be enforced by the government, these changes are often slow to come into effect. This can be frustrating, since this is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed today. Luckily, there are plenty of things we can do from home to help reduce our plastic consumption, by reusing or recycling our plastics wherever we can.
- Get a reusable carrier bag
Plastic bags are a massive contributor to the plastic in landfills. Instead, use any kind of reusable bag whether that’s a reusable carrier bag, canvas tote bag or rucksack. This is a really easy way to reduce your plastic footprint.
2. Get your milk delivered
Most people today buy their milk from the local supermarket however store-bought milk comes in a plastic bottle. During the period of 2016-2017, 14.3 million litres of milk were produced in the UK, with 80% of this being bottled in plastic containers. Getting your milk delivered from a local farm means that you’ll get your milk in glass bottles which can be recycled or reused.
3. Use local refill stations
More and more refill stations are opening up across the UK – do some research to find your local one. At a refill station, you will be able to take containers and fill them with liquids such as shampoo, laundry detergent and all-purpose cleaners.
4. Carry a reusable water bottle
More than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators every day. This can be avoided by investing in a reusable water bottle and filling it up throughout the day. Not only will this reduce your plastic consumption, but it will save you money too!
5. Use a reusable coffee cup
If you’re a coffee drinker, beware of take-away coffee cups. These cannot be recycled and every year in the UK, 2.5 billion of these coffee cups are thrown away. Instead, buy yourself a reusable coffee cup made of either plastic or glass and carry this with you. Some coffee shops including Starbucks even offer a discount for customers who use their own cup.
6. Beware of cling film
Cling film has become a household staple for most people however a lot of us don’t realise that it isn’t recyclable. Instead, buy tin foil since this is recyclable or alternatively, there are some online stores that sell eco-friendly cling film.
7. Ditch the teabags
Unfortunately, most tea bags contain up to 25% plastic and a Canadian study showed that when at brewing temperature, teabags on average release 11.6 billion minuscule particles known as “microplastics” and 3.1 billion “nanoplastics” into each cup which can end up in the ocean. Instead of teabags, use loose tea leafs and a tea strainer or do your research before buying tea bags to find which brands are biodegradable.
8. Buy fruit and veg at your local farmers market
Shopping at your local farmers market means you can bring your own containers to carry your food home in. This means you avoid buying the unnecessary plastic packaging that you would take home from your local supermarket.
9. No glitter!
One plastic item that might surprise people is glitter. Glitter that you might use for parties or give to your kids for arts and crafts is a microplastic that often escapes into waterways and ultimately, into the ocean. This can then be consumed by marine life which can make them ill or even kill them. Some nurseries in the UK have even banned glitter to try and help the environment.
10. Ditch the disposable razors
Instead of throwing a disposable razor in the bin every few weeks or so, consider getting a razor with a replaceable blade or using a straight razor instead.
plasticoceans.org, ourworldindata.org, iucn.org, cleanwater.org, greenchildmagazine.com, plumbs-dairy.co.uk, wwf.org.uk, iberdrola.com, biologicaldiversity.org