Plastic is an integral part of our lives - 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 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 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 can take a whopping 500 years for a plastic bag to biodegrade!
Let’s put this into perspective. According to the charity Plastic Oceans, approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide each year; more than one million are used every minute. A plastic bag has an average ‘working life’ of 15 minutes, yet it will outlive its user by a few hundred years.
We also produce plastic waste without always realising. According to scientists at Plymouth University, 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?
In 2017, a United Nations report warned 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 2017 study 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. For example, in October 2015, the UK government introduced a 5p charge on single-use plastic bags and, in April 2020, the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cotton buds was banned.
The shift away from plastic will be a big change as currently, according to the National Geographic Society, 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. Take a look at the Useful resources at the end of this guide to find out 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.
- Use tupperware boxes or reusable food wrapping to keep food fresh, instead of cling film.
- 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 to avoid using single-use alternatives.
- De-plastic your toiletries! Swap out plastic bottles of shower gel for bars of soap. Look for products like roll-on deodorants where you can buy the container once and then stock up with refills when you run out.
- Try to avoid buying clothes that release large amounts of plastic microfibres when washed - synthetic materials like acrylic and polyester are the biggest offenders.
- Recycle Now allows you to enter your postcode and see what types of recycling are available in your area.
- This article asks ‘How much plastic is your washing machine sending out to sea?’
- Greenpeace has more tips on how to reduce your plastic use here.