Environmental activists everywhere must be eternally grateful to David Attenborough for bringing the problem of plastic in the environment to our attention in Blue Planet 2.
Plastic as we know it has only been around for about 70 years and in that time it has transformed every aspect of our lives. An estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic has been produced to date.
Of this, 6.3 billion tonnes is now waste – with 79% of it in landfills or the natural environment. This vast amount of waste is the result of modern living. Plastic is used in many single use items such as drinks bottles, nappies, cotton buds, drinking straws, and cutlery.
Items like these which are made cheaply are readily discarded after use, often with no thought about the consequences. Drinks bottles are an obvious and ubiquitous problem. Around 480 billion plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016 (110 billion of those were made by Coca Cola). Less than 50% were collected for recycling. Only 7% were turned into new bottles.
Plastic persists for a very long time, its durability being an advantage in use and a serious problem in the environment where the estimated time taken to biodegrade is around 50 years for a styrofoam cup, 450 years for a nappy and a plastic bottle, and 600 years for fishing line.
Around 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year. There are around 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean.
More than 100,000 marine animals die each year due to plastic ingestion or entanglement. In a survey of 192 coastal countries contributing to ocean plastic waste, Asian nations were 13 of the 20 biggest contributors with China being at the top of the list of countries mismanaging plastic waste. Some of China’s waste started off in Britain.
We have been shipping up to 500,000 tonnes of plastic for recycling in China every year but now this trade has been stopped. The UK’s recycling industry doesn’t know how it will cope with the Chinese ban on imports of plastic waste imposed this month. Michael Gove, the Environment Minister, has admitted that he did not see this coming.
The existing problem with plastic waste looks set to worsen as it is stock piled or incinerated.
Incineration is not the answer as it creates toxic chemicals and heavy metals besides which there are not enough incinerators in this country to cope with the quantities of waste generated here.
So, what’s the answer?
By making relatively simple lifestyle changes we can all reduce the amount of plastic in our lives:
l Stop buying bottled water. UK consumers buy over 35 million plastic bottles every year.
l Buy a reusable bottle. If you buy one bottle a day at 80p a bottle you could save £292 a year.
l Ditch drinking straws. Plastic straws are one of the top 10 items found in beach cleans (Marine Conservation Society reports). Unless the straw in your drink is a paper version, say no.
l Stop using single use plastic carrier bags. Since the plastic bag charge was introduced there has been a massive 85% drop in their use. If you’re not using reusable shopping bags you’re behind the curve.
l Invest in a reusable coffee cup. 2.5 billion cups are thrown away every year in the UK. Less than 1 in 400 are recycled. That’s a lot of waste cups and lids. Some cafes offer a small discount if you use your own cup. If they don’t, ask them why not.
l Buy loose fruit and vegetables. Some stores provide paper bags for loose mushrooms so why not provide paper bags instead of plastic ones for other items, too? Loose fruit and veg are usually cheaper as well.
We should all be aware of the amount of unnecessary plastics we use but ultimately the government must pass laws to encourage or force organisations and corporations to change their practices.
One success has been the UK government ban on the use of microbeads.
To raise awareness of this subject the film A Plastic Ocean will be screened at the Coliseum Centre in Whitby at 2.30pm on Wednesday February 14.
This event will be free and open to all.