Have we reached a Tipping Point with Plastic?

Just as we were about to hit ‘publish’ on this blog, the UK media announced that Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has hinted at a total ban on plastic drinking straws. The Marine Conservation Society estimates the UK uses 8.5 billion straws every year, which are among the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups. Gove, when asked by the Daily Telegraph if he would prohibit these ephemeral, non-essentials, replied, “Watch this space”.

Until relatively recently, plastic was perceived by most as a ‘miracle material’ – cheap to produce, lightweight, strong, and incredibly durable: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) takes 400 years to naturally decompose –  yet plastic is still used in nearly every industry across the globe. We have gorged ourselves with the fossil fuel-derived material so much that now it’s impossible not to see it quite literally float up in our faces. Plastic peppers our shores, and forms such as The Great Pacific Garbage the size of Texas (a conservative estimate). Plastic has even climbed up the food chain to end up in our food. Personally speaking, I would not be surprised if, in a few years’ time, we discover that several newly-prevalent health conditions are linked to (if not caused by) our exposure to the stuff. Sadly, our indulgence has caught up with us, and only now have we realised the extent of the problem. Unlike cardboard or wooden packaging, no single piece of plastic ever made has decomposed since it started rolling off production lines. Watch this 1970s TV commercial if you’re in any doubt as to how attitudes to plastic have changed…!

One particular form of the ‘eternal stuff’ is being particularly condemned: the plastic bottle. The Guardian has reported that in the UK we buy 1 million plastic bottles a minute, with UK households recycling 16 million of them a day. Although we may think that we’re doing our job here, National Geographic states only 9% of plastic bottles are recycled. However, signs point to there being no slow down in plastic usage, with the plastic decomposition clock constantly being reset. We are only just beginning to understand how plastic waste is impacting systems and their functions around our beautiful planet. Forbes has reported that by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic in weight than fish! Plastic waste that reaches our seas every year can kill as many as 1 million sea creatures, according to UNESCO. And it’s not just sea creatures ingesting this toxic waste. A recent study by Ghent University in Belgium has found that people who regularly eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic a year, the long-term effects of which are unknown. And closer to home, Plymouth University found one-third of all fish caught in the UK contained tiny pieces of plastic.

This self-inflicted damage to our planet and our health lit a growing fire beneath us – Glastonbury, for one, has banned plastic bottles beyond 2019. Below are just a few of the businesses looking to reduce plastic.

plastics for blog-1

Out with the New, in with the Old: Let’s get back to Glass!

SodaStream – whilst it may be condemned by the sugar lobby, at least offers an alternative to buying multiple packages for its fizzy drinks. CEO Daniel Birnbaum says that, until now, there was no other material to contain the fizzy stuff, but claims its own reusable plastic bottle can replace 2,000 single-use ones. The company also offers glass bottles, which last longer and are easier to clean. For Parisians – the government in Paris has introduced public sparkling water fountains to discourage those from buying it bottled – just don’t forget your lemon!

Canadian social enterprise, The Plastic Bank, is replacing single-use plastic bottles with cardboard instead, which, even if it doesn’t get recycled, takes much less time to biodegrade. Pound for pound, plastic can be more valuable than steel. As most people are aware, the most polluted places are home to the most disadvantaged people. The Plastic Bank encourages these communities to return plastic to the bank in exchange for money.

Whilst we’ve been consciously saving money by making our own meals, we’ve actually been letting the planet down by using Ziplock bags to save space in our rucksack. (I have often marvelled why it’s impossible to buy a tier of paper bags tied together by a string – after all, the local bakery has them in multiples!) Blue Avocado has produced reusable snack bags for food and other items, made from recycled plastic bottles. Incidentally, the soft drinks industry has insisted that consumers will not accept recycled plastic if it’s opaque. We (and surely 99% of anyone with a conscience) argue to the contrary. It’ll just take some explaining and education.

A company that has long been conscious of health, Whole Foods seems to be leading the way in plastic reduction on the [high end] high street. In 2008, it swapped plastic bags for paper, which had a knock-on educational impact on customers. In addition, it also offers biodegradable alternatives for plates, cutlery and take-out items.

Let’s Co-operate to Ameliorate

As with any movement that requires massive financial and behavioural shifts, we’ll need to corporate around the globe to make change happen. Fortunately, experts such as as our ‘global treasures’, Sir David Attenborough (whose Blue Planet II series was set to  ‘touch’ a billion people, as we marvelled in this blog), can have a big impact on our consciousness, and help educate the next generations who are saying ‘Enough!’ Even The Queen has also sought to reduce plastic straw usage at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

By using a combination of ‘law and nudge’, we will get there, but writing this as an environmental science graduate, it won’t happen fast because plastic’s still so cheap to produce.

Here are some ways YOU can cut down on plastic usage via the NGO, Greenpeace:

  1. Carry a reusable bottle. This also is a great way to save money! Here’s a link to where you can fill your bottle up in the UK.
  2.  Reject the straws. Do you really need a straw for that drink? If you’re a restauranteur / bar owner, think about replacing plastic straws with cardboard ones.
  3. Carry a reusable coffee cup: 2.5 billion coffee cups which are thrown away every year in the UK because a thin layer of plastic is laminated onto the paper, making them difficult to recycle – less than 1 in 400 are recycled. A lot of coffee shops now offer a discount if you bring your own cup, too!
  4. Try to avoid excess packaging for fewer food miles and more paper bags. Better yet, try to shop at your local grocer. Additionally, supermarkets need to also look into reducing their packaging.
  5. It’s possible to refill laundry or washing up liquids now – search your nearest refill station here.
  6. Don’t use plastic cutlery. When you’re on the go, these are convenient (and free), but look into taking along a reusable fork or even a spork.
  7. Trade in shop-bought milk for your milkman’s in a traditional glass bottle. Believe it or not, milkmen still exist – find your local one here.
  8. Avoid microbeads. The good news is, the UK has banned these from 2018, however some may still be on the shelves, so be sure to check for polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon.
  9. Remember your reusable bag. Figures show that since the plastic bag charge was introduced in England, there’s been a massive 85% drop in their use.

(Cover image: What Lies Under by Ferdi Rizkiyanto – 2011)