Until now, we haven’t had to think about where our plastic waste ends up. After the garbage or recycling truck picks up our bins, someone takes care of it all, right? And is plastic pollution as bad as everyone says?
According to a report by The Guardian, one million plastic bottles are bought worldwide every single minute. That means one million bottles become a waste product every single minute. Let that sink in for a moment.
The prediction is, by 2021, that number will rise by 20%. Add in the billions of other everyday plastic waste like coffee cups, wrappers, cling film, bubble rap, packaging, microbeads, straws, cotton buds, toothbrushes, cosmetics, cutlery – and we’re talking about a hell of a lot of waste.
We now know, most of our plastic either ends up as landfill or in our oceans. Currently, there is no world-wide programme in place to ensure the latter does not happen.
So, yes, it is as bad as it sounds. And we, as individuals, have to make changes to cut down plastic at the source of introduction. It’s the only way to stop waste seeping into our environment. The time has come to take control over our own decisions and stop using plastic, especially the single-use form.
Why is plastic suddenly a big deal?
Plastic waste has always been a big deal – because plastic was made to be almost indestructible.
Originally, we were too excited about just how light-weight and unbreakable it was in comparison to glass to even think what that meant. We didn’t realise that one piece could take anything from 450 to 1000+ years to disintegrate.
Plastic has been causing harm to the environment for a long, long time. Scientists have been banging on about it for decades. Like with all causes, the campaign started off small. It just took a while for mainstream media to report on it and for us, therefore, to hear about it.
Today, it is widely recognised as a problem we all have a hand in. If we all ignore the problem because ‘one person can’t make a difference’, nothing will change. And if we continue this way, research predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish life.
How is plastic harmful?
The first thing to understand about everyday plastic is that it is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Polyethylene is derived from petroleum and contains a lot of chemicals. These include colourants, foaming agents, plasticisers, antioxidants and flame retardants. Basically, it is poisonous if consumed.
Today, it is our oceans and seas that suffer the most. Water currents can carry debris for thousands of miles. From one hemisphere to the other. Autopsies of sea birds and marine mammals often show bits of plastic in their stomachs. They misidentify pieces of plastic as food. Sea turtles often mistake bags for jellyfish. This can cause choking or poisoning. It is terrible to think it is because of humans that this debris is in their environment in the first place.
Below is one of the saddest things I’ve seen while travelling. While in the Russian Far East, we came across a Steller sea lion hauled up on a rock. If you look closely, she has a frisbee-like plastic ring caught around her neck.
The ring is hard to spot because her thick blubbery skin and fur have started to grow over. This product of human manufacturing is becoming a part of her body. How awful is that? You can see the raw wound the ring is causing around her neck.
Unfortunately, young seal and sea lion pups tend to play with this debris without knowing the harm they could cause. Once a ring like this has been caught around a sea lion’s neck, it can cause pretty nasty injuries, even infection. Sometimes entanglement leads to strangling, and death.
I photographed the monkey at the top of this page while trekking in Argentina. He had an empty bottle in his hand and was trying to bite through the plastic, presumably to get the few last drops of water out. That would not have been doing his little body any good at all.
Aside from the damage it is doing to our marine and land species, plastic waste is also ruining our few remaining pristine environments. Some of which are found far away in the remote Indian or Pacific oceans. It is rare to find such picture-perfect places unspoilt by rubbish. Our consumption is slowly wrecking paradise.
Soon, there won’t be places like this for our children, or children’s children, to visit.
Isn’t it too late?
Absolutely not. We can’t change how plastic has been used in the past – but we can change our habits now. While you have been reading this article, there are thousands of incredible people out there organising their own clean ups. People who are actively picking up debris while out for a jog on the beach. People who are getting the kids involved, picking up bits while out for a walk.
Many have started making small changes like carrying a reusable water bottle or avoiding plastic cutlery when buying food on-the-go.
The fact is, things are only going to get worse if we don’t all change our habits. And if we don’t change things, who will?
But I recycle…
In the UK alone, 38.5 million plastic bottles are used every single day. Although polyethylene terephthalate is highly recyclable, our facilities are just not able to handle the sheer numbers of these bottles being produced.
According to a Guardian report, in 2016 less than half of the bottles bought were collected for recycling. And just 7% of those were made into new bottles.
The rest ended up as landfill or in our oceans.
What can I do?
Here are 10 easy ways to give up single-use plastic today:
1. Carry a reusable water bottle
Fill this up at home or in cafes rather than buy a new bottle.
2. Invest in a reusable mug
Even paper cups have plastic layering. Ask your local cafe to use your reusable mug to make your hot drink in.
3. Say no to plastic straws.
Make an effort to drink in pubs that don’t automatically give out these straws with their drinks. Give those good guys the support and encourage the ones burying their heads in the sand to make the change, too!
4. Keep veggies loose at markets and supermarkets.
They don’t need to be in bags to be weighed. For convenience, you can buy thin cloth bags to pack them in after.
5. Beeswax food wraps are cheap alternatives to cling film.
They can be washed, dried and reused time and time again. I wrap up opened cheese packs, cold meat and cover over food containers with them and I fully vouch for them keeping things fresh.
6. Say no to plastic shopping bags.
Tote bags are way more handy – not only are they comfortable to carry on the shoulder but they also don’t cut the circulation off in your fingers when packed with heavy goods.
7. Ditch your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one.
The more we support the bamboo toothbrush market, the more big-name companies will feel the pressure to start developing their brand in this direction.
8. Ensure you do not use any products containing microbeads.
These are the tiny bits of plastic found in exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs. The UK has now banned Microbeads.
9. Many manufacturers now make cardboard cotton buds.
Be sure to support them and encourage those still making plastic ones to make the change.
10. If whatever you’re buying comes in a single-use container, ask yourself whether you really need it.
Could you go without? Is there a non-plastic alternative? Just a simple second-thought here and there will cut out so much single-use waste.
There is one more thing to think about. Next time you throw something away, think about where it may end up. Packaging straps, wraps and sheets, fish hooks, nets, ropes – even rubber bands. All of these can cause animals severe injury. They could even kill.
As we can never quite be sure what does happen to plastic when they leave our bins, make an effort to dispose of waste properly. Regardless of material, cut straps up so they are no longer looped or large enough to suffocate or strangle. Chop up bands and nets so they can’t entangle. Your forward-thinking could save wildlife.
More about marine plastic pollution.