We take plastic for granted - but it’s only really existed as we know it for the last 70 years. In this short amount of time, it’s changed the way we live - the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the products we have in our homes. But all this plastic is harming the planet, and we’re now facing a plastic crisis.
Why is plastic in the news at the moment?
It seems as though every time you turn on the TV or read the news, there’s an article or documentary about plastic. This is because although plastic is undeniably useful, scientists are starting to realise that the amount of plastic we use, and more importantly, the amount we throw away, is damaging the environment.
Why is plastic such a big problem?
One of the big advantages of plastic, and why it was invented in the first place, is that it lasts for a very long time. For example, it takes a whopping 450 years for a plastic bottle to biodegrade!
To put this into perspective, each person in the US produces 120kg of plastic waste a year. In the UK it’s about 76kg per person, and in Sweden, it’s around 18kg. That’s a huge amount of plastic being thrown away each year which will take centuries to biodegrade!
We also produce plastic waste without always realising. A washing machine can release up to 750,000 plastic fibres per wash, while a single application of some toiletries can contain almost 100,000 plastic microbeads. A whole bottle can contain almost 3 million microbeads - most of which find their way into the sea along with other plastic waste, mainly via rivers.
Why is plastic in the sea so bad?
The United Nations (UN) warns that sealife is facing "irreparable damage" from the millions of tonnes of plastic waste which ends up in the oceans each year.
For seabirds and bigger sea creatures like turtles and dolphins, the main danger comes from larger bits of plastic waste. It’s easy for them to get tangled up in plastic bags which can cause them to drown or to mistake plastic for food.
Over time, these bits of plastic waste are exposed to sunlight, oxygen and waves and break down into smaller and smaller pieces until microscopic fragments enter the foodstream. A recent survey by Plymouth University found plastic in a third of fish caught in the UK and 83% of tap water samples in seven different countries contained plastic microfibres.
So, what’s being done?
All over the world, governments are starting to take action to reduce plastic waste wherever possible and recycle what’s unavoidable. This is a big change as currently only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled. In the UK, the government has set a target to recycle three-quarters of plastic packaging by 2035.
Can all plastic be recycled?
The short answer is no. There are more than 50 different types of plastics which makes it more challenging to sort and recycle than other materials. Black food packaging is one of the most difficult plastics to recycle. This is because the machines that sort plastics can't detect it due to its colour.
This all makes it confusing for people to know what can and can't be recycled and to further complicate things, it changes depending on where you live.
The majority of households can recycle the plastic bottles that milk, juice and toiletries come in. However, thinner plastics such as carrier bags and cling film are much more difficult to recycle so fewer councils collect these. Recycle Now shows what you can and can’t recycle in your postcode.
How can you reduce your plastic waste?
- Try to avoid plastic-wrapped fruit and vegetables wherever possible
- Clean any plastic food packaging before recycling it, as leftover food may mean the plastic needs to be sent to landfill
- Carry a reusable water bottle and coffee cup with you
- Try and avoid buying clothes that release large amounts of plastic microfibres when washed - acrylic and polyester are the biggest offenders
- Use tupperware boxes or reusable food wrapping to keep food fresh instead of cling film
Greenpeace has more tips to reduce your plastic use here.