The problem with plastic...

As we come towards the end of ‘Plastic-free July’ the increased focus on reducing plastic waste has made it apparent to even more people just what an ever present this substance has become in all of our lives. Charges for plastic bags and proposed bans on straws and stirrers have shown that there are alternatives, and we have tips on how to reduce our plastic use in our previous blogs here and here.

Estimates say that there will be more plastic in the oceans than sea life by 2050. The explosion in plastic use since the Second World War has made many of the elements of today’s society possible, and environmentally has reduced some other potential problems (fuel use is reduced by as much as 50% when shipping with plastic as opposed to using glass or metal containers). Savings in fuel are countered by the physical waste and toxic compounds which are now entering the environment. Plastics have become a cheap, disposable part of our consumerist society, and therein lies the problem: the costs are yet to be fully understood.

Plastics can take centuries to decompose, and even biodegradable plastics require specific conditions to do so (landfills starve the bacteria that they require from oxygen slowing the process). Sunlight can weaken the plastic bonds and help them to break down more quickly, however the place this is most likely to happen is one of the last places we would want it to: the oceans and seas. Here is a picture we took of what would be a beautiful beach in Thailand, but has been polluted by plastic waste washed up from the ocean.

Plastic pollution on the beach

As the plastic breaks down, chemicals added to the plastics to give them different properties leach out into their surroundings, including toxic additives like BPA. These are then available to be ingested by animal life, and become a part of the food chain. The same applies to smaller polymer chains that are still breaking down. Once in the gut of an animal, they are no longer having their bonds weakened by the sun’s UV rays and due to their indigestibility, collect there. This is not healthy for any animal, and again works its way up the food chain.

There is no perfect way to dispose of plastic.  Reduce, re-use, recycle is a great motto to live by. Reducing plastic use lessens our reliance on diminishing stocks of fossil fuels, as well as protecting plant and animal life from poisonous additives and other harmful by-products. When plastic use is unavoidable (minimise this by using zero waste stores and shopping at markets – keep an eye out for our next blog on zero waste shops around the UK), try to make sure it is recyclable, and be sure to separate out your rubbish! Waiting until the environmental impact of plastic use is fully evident when we already know so much about what damage is done, will only worsen the situation. Finally, re-using plastic products that we have already used limits the production of new items and therefore the environmental impact. In addition we can use glass jars, metal straws, and other reusable products to leave a smaller environmental footprint. You can’t lose if you re-use!

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