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The Major Problem with Plastic Pollution

May 24, 2022

Plastic is everywhere. It's in pretty much all of our consumer purchases, from food to cosmetics. Whilst it does provide a useful option for packaging & hygiene, it is often used for convenience replacing natural options, and in many cases not actually needed. It has become a massive pollution problem in our oceans, beaches, and landfill sites, with fish & turtles in particular suffering from our convenience, by getting trapped in discarded plastic, eating plastic bags mistaking it for their food, and destroying their habitat. We desperately need to solve this problem, sooner rather than later, if we have any chance in salvaging our environment and protecting the wildlife we share the planet with.

Plastic is now the main type of debris found in our oceans around the world. The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of plastic pollution are the single use plastic bottles, bags and the six can packs rings as these are all very visible and cause immediate harm. What is lesser known and lesser seen are microplastics, and these tiny pieces of plastic are created from larger pieces of plastic that have broken up and degraded over time, or manufactured by health and beauty products (called microbeads) which can be found in skin cleansers and toothpastes. Luckily these microbeads have now been banned in most countries, however the damage has still been done. Due to the size of these tiny pieces of plastic, they can easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in our rivers, reservoirs, and into our drinking water, posing a great risk to our own health. In the Marine Pollution Bulletin journal published in 2020, scientists found 96 microplastic particles in ice collected from Antartica.

I’m not suggesting that all plastic is bad and that we need to get rid of it all immediately, it does in some cases provide benefits, and can solve some hygiene problems. For example, in hospitals it is used as packaging for sterile equipment such as needles, scalpels, & bandages where hygiene is of the utmost importance. It’s also used in the construction industry for safety hard hats, glasses, and without it we wouldn’t have electronics such as computers or mobiles. The problem is the vast amount of single use plastic we consume.

It is estimated that each year England uses 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers & 1.8 billion plastic stemmed cotton buds, but the government has finally taken a major step towards protecting our environment by banning these products in October 2020. It is important to remember that those with medical conditions and the disabled will still be able to request plastic straws if needed in pubs and restaurants. Also with the levy of 5p per plastic bag, the government has helped to cut sales of plastic bags by 95% in the main supermarket chains, which is another fantastic milestone in the reduction and removal of single use plastics. What is great news is that we are starting to see some of the benefits of these programmes. In 2017, the Marine Conservation Society found an average of 31 plastic stemmed cotton buds per 100 meters of beach, and in 2019, it had been reduced to 8 which shows the effort that some have gone to, to move away from plastic. Only with the support and innovation of major brands and companies can we continue to make progress and significantly reduce the use of plastic. The UK led Global Ocean Alliance now has the support of 29 other countries to protect at least 30% of the global ocean in Marine Protected Areas by 2030, and next year the UK will launch a £500 million Blue Planet fund that will protect marine resources from key human generated impacts such as climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and habitat loss. This is so important because the ocean generates over 50% of Earth's oxygen, it is our plants climate regulator by absorbing around 93% of the additional global heat and 25% of human generated CO2 emissions.

Whilst that is all great news and shows what achievements we can make when we take action, we still have so far to go. Every year over 380 million tonnes of plastic is manufactured, and of that less than 10% of that plastic is actually recycled, while the rest is either sent to landfill, dumped or is incinerated which then causes air pollution. A lot of the plastic that is sent to landfill could actually be recycled such as the plastics used for bottles & packaging, but because there are so many different types, and the massive confusion around kerbside recycling (what can and cant be recycled), or contamination with food or wrong types of plastic, but it isn’t recycled so only exacerbates the whole situation. A recent Greenpeace article states that around 40% of our plastic waste is actually exported to Turkey but there are rules in place to prevent the export of plastic waste unless its destined to be recycled. However the WWF has calculated 800,000 tons of this exported plastic are dumped in illegal & unregulated sites, just 3 years after it was found that the UK had also exported plastic to Malaysia where again it was dumped in illegal & unregulated sites.

It’s hard to think that this exported plastic will actually have an effect on each of us here in the UK, but it’s surprisingly easy to make the link. Lots of this exported and dumped plastic will make its way into the natural ecosystems including rivers which lead to the ocean. Around 1 in 3 fish that is caught for human consumption now contains plastic, changing the question we ask from ‘are we eating plastic?’ to ‘how bad for us is it when we do eat this plastic?’. Also when we think about going on holiday, typically a lot of us will imagine pristine beaches and the sound of crashing waves. That thought drastically changes when the beach is covered in old water bottles, crisp packets & plastic bags.

It’s not all bad news, we are seeing a reduction in the amount of single use plastic used in the UK, and people are becoming more aware of the effect it has on the environment. We just need to keep up the momentum by educating ourselves as to what we can do differently, what plastic free options there are (like choosing 3 loose peppers rather than a single plastic pack of 3), and encouraging others to think twice before picking something up for convenience. If we can all make a small change together, do it repetitively, we will see massive change and know we have done something good. Whilst a lot of changes will need to come from our government and major supermarket chains, we can influence the time it takes for them to make change. Write to your MP’s, purchase one product over another, share a post on social media, because together we can change the world.