Plastics – the environmental issue
This website is dedicated to reducing the impact of single use plastics on the environment and our oceans. It may not be practical to go plastic free in all aspects of our lives, but the key is to reduce or remove the most harmful plastic waste from our everyday activities.
Everyone needs to play a part and it’s easier than you might think.
The rise of plastic
It’s easy to understate the importance of plastic. It’s versatility, low production cost and endless list of applications mean it is currently one of the most valuable and ubiquitous materials we have. No other material has had such a positive impact on humanity.
Sadly, the massive success of the material has now led to one of the most serious environmental issues of our time. This website focuses on providing impartial information on plastic-based oceanic pollution and the practical steps we can all take to help.
One thing is clear, we need to take action now.
Benefits of plastic
We approached the UK customer service team at the Co-op supermarket for comment on the wide use of plastic packaging in supermarkets. In response they cited the use of plastic wrap used commonly on cucumbers – without the film the cucumbers have a shelf life of a few days, however when wrapper this is extended dramatically to two weeks. This anecdote neatly illustrates how beneficial plastics are for the food supply chain. Plastic is equally necessary for all kinds of industrial, commercial and medical processes from syringes to car parts. This is why the reduction of plastic waste is going to be incredibly difficult. It’s simply not commercially viable for Co-op to stop using plastic cucumber wrap until a suitable replacement is invented.
A few of the countless benefits of plastic are summarised below:
- Can be made into complex shapes
- Can be made permeable or impermeable to liquid and gas
- Easy to clean or sterilise
- Resistant to breakage
- Resistant to ultra violet rays, chemicals, heat, cold, vibration and other environmental factors
- Can be woven, or made into thin sheets
- Can be flexible yet retain a shape
- Can be clear or coloured, even used for lenses and optical equipment
Types of plastic
Plastics are usually carbon based materials produced from chemicals originating from oil, coal or natural gas. Approximately four percent of global petroleum is used for plastic production .
There are two main types – thermoplastic and thermoset.
Thermoplastics are formed from long polymer chains, and there contribute over ninety percent of all plastics produced. Thermoplastics can be melted and formed into shapes in a mound, thermoset plastics cannot be melted once formed. An example of a thermoset plastic is epoxy – once set the shape is fixed. The chemical composition of plastics can be varied to produce plastic with different properties and densities for a wide variety of applications. Plastics tend to be supplied in small pellets called noodles which are melted and formed by manufacturers into the final product.
Various methods exist to form thermoplastics into shapes for the consumer . These include extrusion, film blowing, injection moulding, blow moulding, expanded bead blowing, rotational moulding, compression moulding. Most of these processes involve heating the plastic before shaping into its final form.
Common plastics and example uses
- Polystyrene – hot drinks cups
- Polypropylene – ice cream containers
- Low density polyethylene (LDPE) – bin bags
- PVC – juice bottles
- High density polyethylene (HDPE) – shampoo bottles
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – soft drink bottles
The most commonly recycled plastics are HDPE, PET and PVC.
Approximately half of all plastic produced is for single use applications .
Why is plastic such an issue?
Plastic is harmful to the environment is three main ways:
- Ingestion by sea, air and land animals of all sizes
- Leaching of harmful chemicals into river and sea water
- Entanglement of marine animals
In 2005, the journal Science estimated that two million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. In 2015, this estimate was updated to eight million tons . This volume of pollution is difficult to visualise and continues to increase every year.
By 2021, half a trillion plastic bottles will be consumed every year. Today one million bottles are purchased every minute , and a large percentage of these bottles are used to satisfy the market for bottled drinking water.
One of the properties of plastic which has led to the success of the material is longevity. The inert nature of the material make it ideally suited as a drinks container or for medical applications but consequentially it doesn’t decompose in nature. Natural chemical or biological processes don’t have much of an impact so plastic tends to hang around in ecosystems everywhere. Eventually plastic does breakdown into smaller particles known as microplastics. These tiny particles are harmful to the environment in brand new ways and poisonous chemicals are released during the degradation process. Plastic is found in almost all species of fish and marine mammals, and consequently is passed up the food chain into humans. The University of Belgium estimated that seafood eaters can ingest 11,000 particles of microplastics each year. How plastic affects animals and humans is an area which requires more study.
Due to the convergence of oceanic currents, waste tends to congregate in large areas such as the ‘great Pacific garbage patch’ where waste can be trapped for decades . The size of this patch is very difficult to estimate as most of the plastic is not visible from a boat, but the size of Texas is most conservative estimate. Five major garbage patches now exist, and form in circular currents know as gyres. Most worryingly it’s estimated that 95 percent of the plastic is not at the surface, and now impossible to extract with current technologies.
Chemicals released during plastic decomposition and production
PET and PVC slowly leach a chemical called DEHP when submerged in water or buried. DEHP can disrupt reproductive processes in animals, and has been linked to all kinds of human diseases including cancer and allergies. Consequently it was banned for use in toys for young children in 1999.
Polystyrene releases styrene, and some plastics leach Bisphenol A and PS Oligomer. All of these chemicals cause reproductive issues for marine animals and are carcinogenic.
Chemicals called dioxins are produced during the manufacture of PVC, which are a very potent carcinogen many times more powerful at causing cancer than arsenic.
Sources of ocean pollution
Over eighty percent of plastic entering the ocean comes from land based sources . The three main sources are beach litter, plastic flushed into the sewage system and discarded waste blown from inland. Once plastic is thrown away it doesn’t tend to be well managed, especially in a few large countries in Asia. Most plastic pollution is never collected by waste disposal services and simply blows into bodies of water directly after use. Even when collected, rubbish is often piled high in communal dumps which leaves it at risk of being blown into water systems by the wind or washed in by rain.
In 2017, 600 volunteers across the UK counted ‘nurdles’ on various beaches. Nurdles are small precursors used in plastic production. One beach yielded 127,500  which highlights the additional issue of leakage from the manufacturing chain.Low value plastics such as plastic bags are least likely to be collected by recycling services or third parties. Recycling processes do absorb a certain amount of higher value plastic waste, even if government sponsored programmes are not in place due to the commercial value of the materials.
Largest producers of plastic
The top ten plastic producers are massive companies, each of which make billions of dollars annually, a few examples are listed below along with their annual turnover .
- Dow Chemical – $49 billion
- Lyondell Basell – $33 billion
- Exxon Mobil – $236 billion
- Sabic – $35 billion
- INEOS – $40 billion
As you can see, plastic production is a massive business and it shows no signs of slowing down – in fact production tends to increase every year.
Worst retail polluters
Coca-Cola uses 120 billion bottles a year , which is an absolutely staggering figure.
A standardised audit of beach litter in the US revealed the top ten plastic polluters :
- Frito Lay
- General Mills
Worst country polluters
A study by the university of Georgia  attempted to classify plastic waste in the oceans by country of origin. They discovered that China and Indonesia were the biggest offenders, contributing approximately a third of total global plastic pollution. China alone is responsible for nearly a quarter of global demand for bottled water, and large scale cultural shifts will be required to alter this behaviour.
Impact on wildlife
Plastic has been observed in all areas of the world’s oceans including at ten kilometres below the surface in the Mariana Trench. Ten percent of the weight of most seabirds is plastic . Most fish have ingested significant amounts of microplastic which moves through the entire food chain. Plastic ingested by adult dolphins can render their milk poisonous for the young.
The impact of plastic waste on marine life is impossible to deny, and incredibly alarming.
Some of the images included below are upsetting, but should be included to illustrate the harm plastic can do to marine wildlife.
Alternatives and recycling
This chapter discusses the currently available alternatives to single use plastic, and if an alternative isn’t available the various methods of recycling and disposal that are used. A suitable recycling programme with adequate collection and
Alternatives to single use plastic
As plastics are so well developed, affordable, durable and inert it can be challenging to find genuine alternatives. Luckily there is plenty of ongoing research and several promising products have already made it to market.
There is plenty of research into bioplastics which are made from biological materials such as corn starch. These materials can biodegrade in the right conditions (such as composting facilities at high temperatures) in about 50 to 90 days, producing carbon dioxide and water. Unfortunately these environmental conditions tend not to exist in the oceans. For such materials to be widely adopted they need to be durable enough for the supply chain, but break down quickly when exposed to a wide range of natural environments. It’s a tricky balance to get right, which is why more research and industry interest is needed.
Single use plastics are the most alarming plastic polluter, so perhaps more durable reusable products can form part of the solution. The most obvious case is to replace bottled water with refillable water bottles. Many modern water bottles are very durable, can be cleaned in the dishwasher and are tasteless. In blind taste tests, tap water tends to perform well against bottled alternatives. This is an easy action we can all take if we’re lucky enough to live in an area with drinkable tap water.
Tesco and other retailers in the UK have started to offer consumers the choice of buying mineral water in an aluminium can. The co-founder of the ‘CanO Water’ brand explained that aluminium cans “have the best recycling rate of any product”, and that “a recycled can could be back on the shelf in just 60 days”. This is a step in the right direction, however a further step would be to stop the sale of bottled or canned water completely and incentivise the use of tap water filters. The good news is that this product is a result of consumer interest in alternatives, and this should be encouraged further.
Recycling and disposal
Plastic recycling can take several forms including conversion to fuel. Most plastic waste is too low value to properly incentivise recycling processes, and this issue requires global focus to resolve. Currently only fourteen percent of plastics are recycled globally . Recycling plastic takes 88 percent less energy than producing plastics from new raw materials.
Incineration is another widely used technique to reduce plastic waste, however it can have pretty negative environmental consequences unless carefully managed.
Burning for fuel
Gasification is the process of creating gas from plastic which can be used as a fuel. It can consume large amounts of plastic waste, however isn’t a particularly efficient process so requires government inventivisation to be successful. A step down from gasification is incineration with ‘energy recovery’, which can be used to remove large quantities of waste, however without the necessary oversight harmful pollutants can be produced as a side effect.
Recycling into new plastic
For recycling to be effective, careful sorting of the plastic waste is required. In more developed countries much of this sorting process can be automated, however in less developed communities this needs to be a manual process. Once sorted, plastic is shredded, washed with detergent to remove contaminants, separated and then melted down. Finally the melted plastic is compressed and turned into pellets called nurdles. The most difficult part of the recycling process is the sorting process, but new technologies are emerging to help detect and classify materials. As infrastructure and technology is required to support the recycling process, few developing countries have significant plastic recycling programmes. Despite the fairly complex processes involved with plastic recycling, it’s significantly more energy efficient to recycle than product plastic from raw materials.
Most bottles used for drinks are made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) which is easily recycled, however the huge volume of production is outpacing global recycling efforts. Only seven percent of plastic bottled collected for recycling were actually turned into new bottles.
One of the other biggest barriers to recycling is the use of mixed plastic in packaging and products. Manufacturers should be put under pressure to consider recycling more carefully during the production process. If consumers consider the recycling potential of products before purchase, this will greatly help.
What needs to be done
There is a great deal of interest in the issue, and progress has already been made. Here are the large scale changes required:
- Awareness of the issue
- Consumer behavioural change
- Consumer pressure on retailers and brands
- Government pressure on producers of plastic
- Government improvement of recycling and collection infrastructure
- Industry change
Habit is one of the most difficult human behaviours to change. Consumers now habitually purchase bottled water and products wrapped in single use plastic. Awareness is steadily being raised due to high profile campaigners such as David Attenborough and Ellen MacArthur, but this is only the first step.
The Ellen MacArthur foundation has published their vision for a ‘circular economy’, which is a detailed roadmap for a more sustainable human future  – a summary video is below.
Coca-Cola have pledged to collect and recycle as much plastic waste as they use by 2030. McDonalds have made plans to make all of its packaging from renewable or recyclable materials by 2025. Unilever has committed that all of its plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable, or compostable in a commercially viable manner by 2025 . More and more companies are making similar promises, these include PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Mars. This positive news is largely as a result of consumer pressure.
The UK government have set targets to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042. The EU have promised to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030. Legislation is needed to properly govern the full lifecycle of all plastic products. Bans or additional charges on single use plastic bags have dramatically lowered their use in France, the UK and Rwanda .
The UN have recommended the following government sponsored action :
- Improve waste management
- Financially incentivise consumer, retailer and manufacturer behavioural change
- Create strong policies to develop a circular lifecycle for plastic
- Finance research and development of alternative materials
- Raise awareness among the public
Change your behaviour
Can you reduce your weekly plastic waste? Can you recycle more? What will you do to help tackle the issue? The internet has some fantastic resources  to help you reduce your plastic consumption, why not do a bit of research and see what you can do.
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