Our planet is drowning in plastic. Awareness of the need to reduce the use of plastic has increased in recent years. But there is still more work to be done by the government, industry and by us, as consumers.
Unfortunately, simply recycling the plastic we use is not enough. And recycling plastic doesn’t justify using it in the first place. We all need to take steps to reduce our use of plastic, before it’s too late.
Why Should We Reduce the Use of Plastic?
It seems like a silly question, right? The oceans! All those poor sea creatures with plastic in their stomachs. Surely we should reduce the use of plastic for them!
But the answer, as ever, is more complicated.
When scientists first discovered plastic, its convenience, durability and low cost were praised.
Fast-forward 70 odd years and this material, hailed to make our lives easier, is now wreaking havoc.
You might have seen the shocking BBC documentary aired in 2018, ‘Drowning in Plastic’. Those unforgettable images of marine birds and rivers choking due to plastic pollution are etched onto our memories.
Recent figures suggest that 8 million pieces of plastic are entering oceans around the world every day. This is directly linked to the deaths of 1 million seabirds every year.
Closer to home, The Canal and River Trust report the UK waterways are plagued by 14 million items of plastic each year. Worryingly, this figure is set to rise.
The durability of plastic is a both a blessing and a curse. A plastic water bottle holds our drink without leaks or making it too heavy to carry. Plastic is cheap so that keeps the costs of our drinks down too.
But that same water bottle will take hundreds of years to break down. During this time, it will break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Until it becomes microplastics, which are now thought to be entering the food chain. And our bodies.
It’s estimated that plastic is now found in one in every three fish caught for human consumption. All our oceans are now affected – even Arctic ice is contaminated. Research to fully understand the impact of plastics in our food chain is a much-needed priority.
What Will Happen If We Don’t Act Now?
It’s fair to say that we couldn’t live without certain plastic products. But our reliance on single use plastics – bottles, packaging, straws, coffee cups – needs action. And fast.
Let’s say our plastic use continues as it has in recent years. By 2050, 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be in our landfills and natural environment. This will most certainly threaten more of our wildlife and potentially human health.
For some, perhaps the health of the planet and animals isn’t enough of a threat. But maybe the threat to human health is reason enough to appreciate why we should reduce the use of plastic.
How Does Recycling Help Reduce Pollution?
Recycling plastic undoubtedly helps to reduce pollution. It helps to reduce the amount of virgin plastic that needs to be manufactured. But only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. If this rate continues, our quest for less plastic is going to fail.
That leaves an awful lot of discarded plastic clogging up our landfills and our environment every single day. If we revisit the drinks bottle, 1 million are bought every minute around the world. Less than half of these are currently recycled.
The recycling process also impacts our planet. The energy, water and use of other resources isn’t sustainable. So it shouldn’t be viewed as the planet’s knight-in-shining armour when it comes to reducing our plastic problem.
Another issue is the sheer confusion about what can and can’t be recycled. The lack of consistency between local councils only adds to the confusion. WRAP has produced comprehensive guidelines but be sure to check what can be collected in your local area.
For items rejected by your local council, the innovative waste reduction company TerraCycle might be able to help.
TerraCycle uses only circular methods for repurposing waste. They recycle over 97% of the waste they collect. Individuals, manufacturers and company-sponsored schemes can all use TerraCycle.
How Government and Industry Are Tackling the Challenge
The British Government together with manufacturers, retailers and local authorities are taking action. It’s hoped that The UK Plastics Pact launched in April 2018, will transform our plastic manufacture, use and disposal.
One key component is the move from a linear to a circular economy, as per Terracycle’s mission. This keeps plastic in our economy and out of our waterways and seas.
Packaging represents approximately 70% of all plastic waste in the UK. Quite rightly, its reduction is being given priority.
Improving how and what we recycle, and the delivery of a much needed consistent approach across the country will be key.
Other priority areas will include increasing the amount of recycled plastic used in new packaging. Developing reusable packaging and tackling the issue of non-recyclable black plastic will be part of the pact.
Sounds Good. But Has There Been Any Noticeable Change Yet?
In the year since the pact was introduced, positive change has begun. The government announced plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds will be banned from April 2020.
Leading retailers have also taken action. Plastic cutlery is being phased out. Non-recyclable pizza bases are being replaced with cardboard ones. Waitrose announced a pilot scheme allowing customers to bring their own containers to fill up on everyday items.
Music and festival lovers will need to bring their own drink bottles to Glastonbury 2019. Single-use plastic bottles won’t be on sale, which is encouraging as 1 million were bought across the festival in 2017.
How We Can Contribute as Consumers
When it comes to reducing our personal plastic consumption we should all be thinking ‘reject, reduce, reuse, recycle’. In that order.
If you have children, teaching kids about recycling is one the best things you can do.
There are many simple ways to reduce your plastic consumption, take a look at 100 Ways to Reduce and Avoid Plastic at Home for examples.
Outside of the home you can also make positive contributions to reduce plastic use:
- Always carry a reusable water bottle with you when you leave the house.
- Reject bottled water in restaurants.
- Keep a large bottle of tap water in your car for emergencies.
- To help reduce packaging waste, select suppliers who have a similar mission. These could be local markets, farmers markets or a delivery company such as Farmdrop or OddBox.
It’s very encouraging to see visible change. The reduction in the use of plastic bags is a great example of consumers changing habits for the better. But we all need to take responsibility to reduce plastic use and see beyond recycling as the only solution.
If you’re already taking action then think about what else you might be able to change. Or how you can encourage others to follow suit.
If you’re just embarking on your plastic reduction journey, remember every change is a positive contribution. One that will support the health of our planet and its people for years to come.