We’ve spoken at length recently about plastic pollution, the environment, what we can do about it, and why we all need to be doing our best to minimise the effects. It is essential for our future, and the future of our children that we tackle the problem of plastic pollution as soon as possible. In today’s post, we’re taking a look at all the things that you might not know about plastic, recycling, innovation, and the changes to law that governments are implementing to help reduce the problem of plastic pollution.
Facts About Plastics
Before we get to why the use of plastic is a problem, let’s take a quick look at what plastic is made of, the types of plastic that exist, and how it has impacted our lives in positive ways.
- The ingredients to make plastics are all natural, including cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt, and crude oil. Although the elements that go into plastics are generally naturally occurring, the process of distilling the oil, and addition of chemicals means that once it is made, plastic doesn’t break down in the way that other natural products do.
- There are two main categories of plastics – thermoplastics, which soften when they are heated and then harden when they are cooled, and thermosets, which are moulded and will never soften again. There are hundreds of different types of plastic that is in production, but there are seven types that are most common:
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) – this plastic is lightweight, strong, often transparent and is used for food and drinks packaging.
PET plastic is easy to recycle, and most local recycling facilities will collect them.
- High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – this plastic comes in three types: High-Density, Low-Density, and Linear Low-Density. This is often used for milk cartons, cleaning liquid bottles, toys, and pipes.
HDPE is one of the most commonly recycled plastics, and is often made into durable products like plastic fencing and picnic tables.
- Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) – this is a soft, clear plastic that is most commonly found in food packaging, either as cling film, in bread bags, bubble wrap and plastic shopping bags.
LDPE is difficult to recycle, and is often not accepted in kerbside recycling, however many supermarkets have collection points for this type of plastic.
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl) – this is the most dangerous plastic for human health, but it is really durable, doesn’t conduct electricity and doesn’t allow germs to take hold. It is used in plumbing, in toys for children, and in a wide range of products for the medical profession.
PVC is not often recycled, although some specialise recyclers can recycle it into flooring and guttering.
- Polypropylene (PP) – this plastic is most commonly used for hot food containers, since it is resistant to heat, and will stay strong for a long time. It is also used in packing tape, straws and is also used in disposable nappies.
It is possible to recycle PP, but very often isn’t. Where it is recycled, it can be turned into heavy-duty products such as garden tools, cables, and ice scrapers.
- Polystyrene (PS or Styrofoam) – you see this type of plastic the most in the food and drink industry, since it is cheap to manufacture, and retains heat. Unfortunately, it is really bad for humans, since toxins can be absorbed by food that is stored in it, and ingested.
Polystyrene can be recycled into products like insulation, but it is often simply added to household waste.
- Other (Miscellaneous/code #7) – as we’ve already mentioned, there are hundreds of different types of plastics, and sometimes the code #7 will be on the label for products such as sports drinks bottles, single use cutlery and electronics. Many of these types of plastics are not recyclable – and that is why we have included it in this list, so you can choose alternatives when you are buying items such as these.
Where plastic #7 is recycled, it is often turned into plastic lumber and other specialist products.
- Despite the fact that plastic is a problem for the planet, it has revolutionised modern society – and nowhere more than in modern medicine. Safe, shatterproof and child-proof medicine bottles, syringes, sterile surgical gloves and lightweight prosthetics are all possible because of plastic. Outside of the medical sector, plastics have allowed us to create materials that contribute to our homes and businesses in a more affordable way, and that create more durable solutions than may be possible with other materials.
- Plastic as a material has been demonised, but we believe the issue is rather, how we are using it. As we’ve already mentioned, there are some incredibly important reasons to use plastic. The misuse and mismanagement of plastic waste is the issue we should all be concerned about – such as the fact that the average American uses one single-use plastic bag every single day.
Reasons We Need To Be Concerned About Our Plastic Use
We think it is safe to suggest that almost every person in developed countries is aware of the problem that plastic waste presents for our planet. But there are some worrying facts about our use of plastic that we think are well worth sharing again, to underline the importance of recycling plastics and to find sustainable alternatives.
- Despite the knowledge that plastic waste in the ocean is such a problem, it is estimated that almost 1 million plastic bottles are sold every single minute around the world. And the increase in knowledge of the problem doesn’t seem to be deterring the world’s population either. In 2016, more than 480 billion plastic bottles were used – and in 2006 that number was just 300 billion. While the 300 billion we were using in 2006 was already way more than we should be using, the fact that the figure is still rising gives us serious cause for concern.
- At least 40% of plastic is used just once before it is discarded. Single use plastic carrier bags are one of the biggest problems, since there are between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags used every year – and plastic carrier bags are only used for an average of just 12 minutes. This is why the UK government introduced the plastic bag levy in 2015 – and while many scoffed at it as a solution to the issue, the average shopper in England now buys just four carrier bags per year due to the charge. That’s a huge improvement.
Worldwide, there has been a number of bans and charges on single use plastic carrier bags. Across much of Africa (and Australia) plastic bags are completely banned, with Kenya making the first steps to ban the manufacturing and importation of plastic bags in 2007 – and it is recognised as one of the most strict bans in the world, incurring fines of up to $40000, or four years in prison. Throughout southern Asia, plastic bags are banned, while in China, a levy is charged where plastic bags are allowed. Across countries and states in both North and South America, charges tend to be in place as opposed to outright bans – although there are exceptions.
- In 2019, there was a report published in the Guardian that estimated that more than 8.3 BILLION tons of plastic has been manufactured since the 1950s. To put that into context, that weighs more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers. Unfortunately, just 30% of the plastic that has ever been created is still in use – the rest has been discarded.
- Around half of all the plastic made since the 1950s – that 8.3 billion tons we just mentioned – has been produced in the last fifteen years. That’s despite all the efforts in the last few years to convince people to use reusable water bottles, and to avoid single use plastic. Although that is a depressing thing to think, it just illustrates how important it is to continue the efforts to switch to sustainable alternatives.
- 14% of all litter on the planet is plastic drinks containers – and that doesn’t even take into account the caps and labels that are on the bottles, cups and so on, which are usually plastic too.
- Plastic waste that has been discarded is not recycled by default. Just 9% of plastic waste is recycled, 12% has been incinerated, and 79% in landfills or otherwise in the environment.
- Decomposition rates for plastic are an incredible number of years. Softer items such as plastic bags take up to twenty years to break down, but plastics that are designed to be more durable such as plastic straws and bottles can take hundreds of years to break down. The toughest plastics can take much longer – fishing line, for example, can take up to 600 years to break down.
- Some types of plastic takes thousands of years to decompose – and no types of plastic actually decomposes, it simply breaks down into tiny pieces (microplastics) that are then ingested by animals. Where sea life is caught for food, microplastics end up in the food chain – which is a huge problem for our health.
- Marine animals are grossly impacted by our use of plastic and discarding it in the ocean. 100% of marine turtles have plastic in their stomachs, 59% of whales, 40% of seabirds and 36% of seals were found to have plastic in their systems too. It is estimated at least 100,000 marine mammals and turtles die because of plastic pollution every year, as well as more than 1 million sea birds. And the problem will continue – since scientists estimate that every seabird alive will have eaten plastic by the year 2050.
- The issue of plastics being ingested by sea animals doesn’t die as each animal dies either. If an animal that ate plastic is eaten by a predator, then the plastic inside the prey may cause issues for the predator. Not only that though, the body of an animal that ate a piece of plastic will decompose much, much faster than the plastic inside it – and so the plastic will be released back into the ocean, and may kill more animals in the same way.
- If we don’t change what we are doing in terms of the amount of plastic that we are using, then by 2050 scientists estimate that there will be more plastic in the ocean than there is fish. Every day, an estimated eight million pieces of plastic ends up in the sea to be consumed by marine wildlife.
- Some chemicals that are used in plastics (particularly BPA and phthalates) have been reported to disrupt the reproductive process in humans, and may be a factor in around 20% of unexplained infertility. BPA is believed to interrupt the hormone system, and acts much like an artificial oestrogen. Where fertilised eggs in humans are exposed to BPA, they increase the chances of birth defects.
- Exposure to chemicals in plastics are known to increase infertility in marine animals too – orca whales have been found to fail to calve owing to endocrine-disrupting chemicals including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned globally in 2004. If this is an issue for bigger mammals like whales, then we can be relatively certain that it will be a problem for the fertility of other ocean wildlife. This is a huge issue since it could lead to a mass extinction of a species, with knock-on effects for almost all animals on the planet.
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is between Hawaii and California, covers around 1.6 million square kilometres, which is around three times the size of France. It contains around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, which is around 250 pieces for every single human on Earth. To retrieve the garbage, and clean up just 1% of the area would take 67 ships a year to do.
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only massive accumulation in the ocean – it is just the biggest. There are garbage patches in other areas, and they are controlled by Gyres – large systems of circulating ocean currents. There are five – the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre (AKA the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), the South Pacific Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre.
- The reporting on the Great Pacific Garbage patch doesn’t consider that plastic doesn’t just float on the surface. Around 95% of plastic in the ocean is estimated to be on the seabed – which means that it is impossible to know exact amounts.
- While other species are impacted by our use of plastic much more, the effects to human health are as yet to be determined. It has been determined that almost every person eats an average of 70,000 pieces of microplastic every year – which equates to around 100 pieces of microplastic with every meal.
- Even eating plant-based and avoiding use of plastic won’t help you to avoid ingesting it, since research showed 14 pieces of microplastic accumulated on petri dishes within 20 minutes of dinner plates being on a table. Not only that, microplastics have been found in more than 80% of tap water sources worldwide, and have even been found in beer.
- There are 10 rivers across Asia and Africa that carry 90% of the plastic that ends up in the oceans. The rivers in Asia are the Yangtze, Indus, Yellow, Hai He, Ganges, Pearl, Amur, and Mekong, and the rivers in Africa are the Nile and the Niger. The amount of plastic carried in these rivers is a result of huge numbers of people living in those areas, and poor waste management systems being in place. Although this is truly awful, it does mean that there is potential for the issue to be tackled at source there.
- Despite the fact that 90% of the plastic in the ocean comes from Asia and Africa, the UK is definitely not innocent – we create around 1.7 million tonnes of plastic waste every single year.
- Plastic waste is found on every single beach in the world, from the UK shoreline to tourist beaches worldwide and even on distant, isolated coasts where humans rarely go. UK beaches have at least 5000 pieces of plastic pollution on every mile, with a minimum of 150 plastic bottles in each mile.
- It isn’t just beaches that face the problem of microplastics either. Plastics, in terms of micro and nano-sized fibres are found even in the remotest places – even at the top of Mount Everest, and in the depths of the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench.
- Microplastics that were being held in polar sea ice is being released into the sea as global warming continues.
- Twenty companies create more than half of the single use plastic waste in the world. Chemical companies ExxonMobil, Dow, Sinopec, Indorama Ventures and Saudi Aramco are the companies that produce the most plastic waste.
- Not all plastics in the ocean are a result of land-based sources. Between 20% and 30% of plastic in the sea is lost and discarded right there at sea. Fishing nets, lines, ropes and even boats present huge threats to sea life – and many of us have seen the distressing photos of turtles wrapped in fishing nets. This ‘ghost gear’ makes up around half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – and when you compare that with the fact that straws make up just 1% of plastic debris in the ocean, it is clear that dealing with land-based plastic waste isn’t the only problem. Cleaning up the fishing industry, and regulating it will be essential in the future.
- The biggest microplastic contaminants are plastic-based clothing fibres such as acrylic, polyester and nylon. Hundreds of thousands of microfibres are released when this type of clothing is washed, and because they are so tiny, our water treatment processes can’t catch them. As a result they end up in waterways, and eventually the sea, where they are eaten by marine animals.
Important Things To Know About Plastic Recycling
One of the most important things that we need to do more of to avoid the issue of plastic waste getting even worse is plastic recycling. However, there is a lot to know about plastic recycling – it isn’t as simple as just throwing plastics into the recycling bin.
- Recycling plastic allows us to reduce the need for using new materials. This helps the planet because it means:
- We don’t need to use more oil – which is a fossil fuel, and there is only a finite amount of
- We can reduce the amount of energy required to create new plastic
- We can reduce the amount of gases being released into the atmosphere
- Perhaps most importantly – we can reduce the amount of plastic waste being sent to landfill or being incinerated
- While most of us have made the switch to reusable water bottles for daily use, unfortunately that doesn’t eliminate all the plastic bottles from our lives – cordial, fizzy drinks and condiments are still an issue, and can end up in the ocean. When you’re putting plastic bottles into recycling, you should crush the bottles before putting the caps back on them. This will help prevent the caps from popping off at high speed when they are being crushed.
- There are loads of different ways we can recycle lesser used plastics, and in many cases, raise funds for charities too. You can recycled ink cartridges here, computers, laptops, and other electrical equipment here, while there are a number of charities that are collecting the plastic bottle tops, or milk bottle tops for recycling. They are paid a given amount of money when they reach a certain weight – which, as long as you have space to store them, is a great way to donate money with waste items.
- Recycling actually saves energy. We’re sometimes asked if it is worth recycling plastics, since the cost of processing them must be high. And while we can’t deny that there are costs involved in recycling, creating items from recycled materials uses around 50% of the energy costs compared with creating those items from virgin plastics – and of course, since we’re not using new ingredients, it is a much better use of the planet’s resources.
- Not all recycling facilities can recycle every type of plastics – as yet anyway. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who assume that they can, without checking what their local council actually collects. Plastic bags, food trays and plastic film can be recycled (in many cases) but they need specific recycling arrangements. If you’re unsure, it is easy to check on your local council’s website, and if they don’t collect it, don’t simply add it to your household waste. Many supermarkets have collection facilities for these types of plastics, so you can easily drop it off when you’re doing your weekly shop.
- Although in many cases, food trays can be recycled – even through kerb-side collection – if they are dirty, they can’t be. Since food that is left on the plastic trays will start to mould, it contaminates the plastic – and only clean plastic is recyclable. That means that if you’re adding plastic to your household recycling, you need to wash it before you put it in there.
- Single use plastic cutlery and tableware isn’t recyclable. If you’re holding a family get-together, or an event where there are a lot of people to be in attendance, it can be tempting to just use disposable to save on the clear up. And while we understand that; it is really bad for the environment. If you can’t arrange for washing up to be done and you have to rely on single use, look for biodegradable or composable options made from wood, bamboo or palm leaf – they can usually be found for just a few pounds.
- Many so-called ‘developed’ richer countries have been dealing with their plastic waste by sending it to poorer countries. Rather than them recycling them – because they simply don’t have the money to build the processing plants required to deal with waste in such volumes – the plastic is added to landfills in those countries. This keeps the countries bound in poverty, as those countries simply become garbage cans – and since plastic takes thousands of years to decompose, it isn’t an easy thing to get out of.
- Plastic waste impacts poorer people in a much bigger way than just filling their landfills and choking the seas. Air pollution released during plastic production increases cancer rates, which has been observed along the Mississippi River in Louisiana.
The Wonder Of Plastic Innovation
Although there are huge problems with the amount of single use plastic that we’re using, there is some absolutely incredible innovation taking place – both to reduce the amount of virgin materials that go into the plastic that we have to use, and as alternatives.
- Even where using plastic is essential, such as in packing materials like mailing bags to keep products clean and dry, recycled options are easy to source. SR Mailing have recycled, and compostable mailing bags, recycled bubble wrap and hard air cushions in our extensive range of recycled packaging. All of our products are extremely competitively priced compared with non-recycled products from competitors – meaning that businesses can get the products they need without damaging the environment.
- Scientists continue to innovate when it comes to plastics. Recently plastics that are able to biodegrade and be absorbed into the earth, as well as exciting plant-based plastics that can be formed using corn or sugarcane – which can be broken down by the earth quickly – are being developed further.
- When it comes to dealing with plastic waste, scientists are innovating further too. Work has been ongoing with enzymes to help break down plastic waste. This won’t be a whole solution for the plastic waste in the ocean, but it will present a much better solution than putting plastic into landfill or burning it. The most recent research published suggests that liquid containing enzymes from the stomachs of cows are able to break down plastics, including PET, PBAT, and PEF, while at least 50 types of plastic-biodegrading fungus have been discovered. These mushrooms may be able to provide a protein-rich food for plants and animals.
- Plastic bottles have been turned into vanilla flavouring, with the addition of genetically engineered bacteria. This is not just great news for the reuse of the plastic, but also due to the global demand for vanillin, which far exceeds the supply of naturally grown vanilla beans.
- Research at Washington State University (WSU) have developed a way to turn plastic waste into jet fuel – which doesn’t solve the aviation industry’s emissions, but until there are options like hydrogen fuel cells and batteries created, the aviation industry can help to reuse plastic waste.
- Some of the most incredible alternatives to single use plastics that are popping up include edible cutlery – made from millet, rice, and wheat, and straws made from pasta – that are completely biodegradable and won’t harm wildlife as plastic does.
Changes To Laws About Single Use Plastic
Many governments worldwide are taking action to help ensure that single use plastic is minimised – and although these are happening on different timescales, they are being implemented – which is good news.
- The UK banned plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds from October 1st, 2020, while plastic microbeads were banned in 2018. In April 2022, the government will implement a new tax on plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled content.
- Parts of the European Union's Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) came into force on 3 July 2021. This means that EU member states are banned from using single use plastic where non-plastic alternatives are available – including cotton-bud sticks (with medical-use exceptions), cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers and balloon sticks, as well as containers and cups made from oxo-degradable plastics and expanded polystyrene (EPS). There are further requirements for member states too, including targets such as:
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles must contain 25% recycled content by 2025
- 30% of ingredients in all plastic beverage bottles must be recycled by 2030
- By 2024, container caps and lids must remain attached to containers throughout their lifetime, to reduce the caps becoming litter separately, and to increase recycling potential
- In the USA, the situation is complicated – but around a third of the states has pre-emptive laws that actually prevent plastic bans being implemented. However, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act was reintroduced in March 2021, which seeks to phase out throwaway plastics made from fossil fuel, hold the plastic industry responsible for its waste, and pause construction on any new plastic-making plants.
- By 2025 New Zealand will outlaw almost all single-use plastics, including cotton buds, packaging, cutlery, straws, and fruit labels.
- Despite several of the rivers that carry the most plastic waste into the ocean travelling through China, the Chinese government have been addressing the issue of plastic in the country for some time. In 2017, they banned the import of most plastics for recycling, and in 2020, they started to phase in the outlawing of single use plastics, that will be completed by 2025.
Our Final Thoughts
Single use plastic may be one of the world’s biggest problems, and if we don’t do something about it, and quickly, then it won’t be long before the issue is completely irreversible. For the survival of all the species on the planet – ourselves included – we need to stop our reliance on plastic as a material, with single use plastics being the biggest problem for us to solve. Sustainability should be the key to any new products that are being developed.
We can all take steps towards reducing our reliance on single use plastics, and to be reusing and recycling, and taking more sustainable decisions every day. Individually, we can make a difference to our futures, and collectively, with the help of science and big business, we will be able to start to tackle the problem that we’ve made.
Businesses of all sizes have a responsibility to do what they can to make the situation better. Where businesses need to use plastic packaging, choosing recycled, and composable options just makes sense – especially when those options are competitively priced. To get the best products and prices, choose from our selection at SR Mailing.