I’m currently sat in a standard living room. Just a quick glance around and I can see it everywhere; plug sockets, television set, remote controls, WiFi unit, lampshades and even the computer I’m typing on, are all made of the same material that is causing a major threat to our health and planet. Plastic. From here I look into the kitchen and I know that the fridge and cupboards are full of food items that are all wrapped, encased or stored in plastic too. And from there through to a conservatory – an entire room constructed mostly by a plastic material. It is everywhere! And this extends from my house into every other home, office and building, not only in the UK, but throughout the world.
Since the mass-production of plastic materials began over 60 years ago there has been over 8.4 billion metric tons of single-use plastic created. It might be hard to quantify that figure in your mind, but its more than the weight of 1 billion elephants or 80 million blue whales. It’s a phenomenal amount, and plastic production is ever increasing and accelerating, causing serious problems for the planet.
8 million metric tons of plastic find their way into the earth’s oceans every year
I was inspired to write about the problem after watching the Netflix documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’. 8 million metric tons of plastic find their way into the earth’s oceans every year and this documentary details the catastrophic problems it is causing, with a particular emphasis on single-use and micro plastics. Plastic is extremely durable and it can take hundreds of years to decompose. As it slowly breaks down, pieces of it it become microscopic in size, hence the term ‘micro plastics’. When pieces of plastic become so tiny, it is easy for birds and fish to mistake them for food and so they get eaten and find their way into the food chain (whilst poisoning and killing some of the animals that eat them along the way). I found this notion, with the accompanying images and footage, shocking. One scene in the documentary particularly resonated with me where a team of conservationists are seen dissecting dead sea birds off the coast of Australia, and find that the birds stomachs are filled with micro-plastics and items like straws, pens and disposable lighters. Another scene suggested that when we eat shell-fish we are practically guaranteed to be consuming micro particles of plastic – the chemicals from these plastics can make way into our blood and cause serious, life-threatening illnesses like cancers.
Since I watched the documentary it is has been hard for me to turn a blind eye. Every time I cook I notice how often I’m unwrapping, peeling and picking at bits of plastic. Dishes in plastic trays, with a plastic layer of film on top. Plastic containers with peel-off plastic seals. Wrappers, tapes, films, pots, trays and bottles of all shapes and sizes- it seems everything we consume arrives encased in plastic. And whilst I do my best to recycle – and live in an area where the council actively enables and encourages recycling – it still feels like it isn’t enough.
Coca-Cola bottles strewn on top of ancient temples, and the summit of a volcano littered with snack packets
On a recent vacation I saw single-use plastics discarded in some of the most beautiful and unique places on earth; Coca-Cola bottles strewn on top of ancient temples, and the summit of a volcano littered with snack packets. And whilst beholding some amazing scenes, these once in a lifetime moments were tinged with sadness that our race is causing such lasting damage by covering it in this hazardous material. The individuals who throw their litter are directly to blame, but I can’t help but think that also the big name corporations who make these products widely available should also take a slice of responsibility. What is wrong with producing more glass and paper alternatives? Or could they convey stronger anti-littering and pollution messages in their stylish branding? I think so.
But what can we do? We live in this modern, fast-paced and convenience-led world. We want to be able to eat our favourite foods and sometimes we need to grab a drink on the go. We want to have the latest plastic-infused technology, furnishings, children’s toys and sports equipment and we need and rely on the use of plastic for protection, safety and for practicality in our buildings, utilities, medicines and infrastructure.
The Covid-19 pandemic has generated around 1.6 million tonnes of single-use, biomedical plastic waste each day
The Covid-19 pandemic has created an unimaginable amount of single-use, biomedical plastic waste – with some experts even stating that it has already reversed the momentum of the years-long global battle to reduce plastic waste pollution. The amount of plastic waste generated worldwide since the outbreak is estimated to be around 1.6 million tonnes each day.
We literally wear plastic: its infused into our jewellery, watches, accessories, buttons and shoes. Synthetic, plastic polymers can even be implanted in the body to enhance our image. There is absolutely no denying our dependence and need for plastics and its derivatives. The power of low-cost and durable plastic materials is essential to our modern world. But it is now affecting the health of mankind, our eco-systems and the whole planet, surely this is the point where we begin to recognise that what we are doing is not healthy?
There have been some positive developments in recent years that suggest our approach to the material is slowly changing. The UK have been at the forefront of this change with the 10p plastic carrier bag levy charge, the ban of plastic micro-beads in cosmetics and the recent out-law of single-use plastic straws. Our councils are among the strongest in the world in terms of encouraging recycling, and the borough of Greater Manchester in particular has been world-leading in its approach to plastic recycling.
But at times these changes still feel too slow, or dare I say, superficial. Companies that use obscene quantities of single-use plastic continue to grow and expand their product lines and with the global population increasing by the minute, so is our production and consumption of plastic.
So what steps can we take towards reducing personal consumption of plastics? Well the first step is to awaken to the problem. Educating ourselves by watching documentaries and reading about the subject can help lodge the problem in our conscious minds.
Personally I am trying to use less single-use plastics like cling-film and bottles of water. I use a refillable bottle for water when I’m on the move. I’m trying to store food in durable plastic Tupperware instead of wrapping it in single-use cling film plastic (the lesser of two evils?). And I’m trying to recycle as much as possible. Small steps that are arguably not going to make much of a difference in the grand-scheme of things, but I’m aware of the problem and looking for solutions. When it comes to larger items I’m trying to ensure that they can be designated for recycling and if I’m out walking and see some discarded plastic trash that I can move, I will. I find that many household items, toys and clothes can be recycled, up-cycled or donated to other people.
Governments, leaders, nations and companies around the world have to share responsibility and take more action
I believe that making small steps myself is important, but as I already wrote, it doesn’t really feel like these steps are enough. The real chance of change and reform in our approach to plastic comes from above and it’s Governments, leaders, nations and companies around the world who have to share responsibility and take more action. So I am trying to keep abreast of the issue and looking out for ways to help by signing petitions, supporting organisations that encourage change and trying to buy responsibly from companies that care about the environment. I’m also keeping my ear to the ground in terms of politics and Government – to stay informed as to which political parties and leaders have these issues in mind and the ideas, plans and policies that can potentially help to tackle the problem on a larger scale. The future depends on whether, as a society, we can amend our ideals and change our attitudes and approaches towards the innumerable ways in which we consume and utilise plastic products. The problem should be addressed more by our media outlets, and changes encouraged through conversations and intellectual debate.
We are a race that is continuously innovating, with emerging technologies and increasing available alternatives to plastic, there must be a chance that we can start to reduce global waste and reverse the environmental damage that we have caused. To get there will take time and a lot of education, which is partly why I wanted to write about the issue. Any information that can be read, shared and spread around can help the cause. If everyone around the world understands the problem, that is when we will develop a global desire to tackle it, and that is when real changes can and will come.