How can we stop plastic pollution and save the world from literally drowning in plastic? In Blue Planet 2, we found out that every year, approximately 8 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans. Ever since the documentary aired on television, there has been an outcry for action on social media. As a result, we have seen images of wildlife suffering due to our consumption and disposal habits:
- Sea turtles entangled in plastic bags,
- Seabirds dying from ingesting plastic items,
- Marine life consuming microplastics,
- Coral reefs being damaged by plastics, and
- Large plastic products covering Ocean beds.
All this is resulting in a rapid decline of biodiversity and marine ecosystems across the world. Unless we do something about plastic pollution, we will leave future generations with oceans full of plastic instead of healthy ecosystems that are brimming with life.
Why is there so much plastic pollution?
There are 3 main reasons for the current plastic problem:
- We have become a throwaway culture where we consume and discard plastic products at a much faster rate than ever before.
- Not all plastics are recyclable.
- What is recyclable is not recycled due to one of two reasons:
- Not every country has the correct recycling system in place.
- Where recycling infrastructure does exist, not everyone recycles.
Point 3 has been covered extensively in previous blogs about why recycling is not working. To read more about both of these reasons, visit The Basics of Recycling, Why is it not Working, part 1 and part 2. More often than not, people cannot recycle because of the lack of correct waste management infrastructures. The second reason people do not recycle is that they are either not aware of the local recycling system or they simply do not want to do so. Therefore, plastics that do not enter the correct waste management infrastructure thus end up finding their way into the oceans.
What are the Environmental Impacts of Plastic?
Reliance on fossil fuels
To produce new or virgin plastic, means we need to use more fossil fuels and consume more energy in the production of plastic, which then increases emissions of gases into the atmosphere.
Land and water pollution
Any plastic that does not go through the correct recycling treatment has the potential to affect the environment. Plastics end up polluting our land and waters, thus affecting marine life. Plastic has the potential to stay in the environment for hundreds of years. Therefore, when it ends up in the ocean, it will continue to disrupt biodiversity and marine ecosystems for several centuries.
So what can we do to stop plastic pollution?
First, we must reduce consumption, then we must recycle more.
How are plastics recycled?
Recycling is the process of taking something, reprocessing it and turning it into another item. When plastic bottles are sent for recycling, they will be reprocessed and turned into a new bottle or another product. The following is an explanation from the recycle now website: “Plastics are:
- Sorted by polymer type
- Made into new products
It is a two-stage process:
Most sorting is done automatically with a manual sort to ensure all contaminants have been removed. Once sorted and cleaned, plastic can either be shredded into flakes or melt processed to form pellets before finally being moulded into new products.” Recycle Now.
What can you recycle?
The optimal way to ensure that we do not continue to drown in plastic is by reducing where we can and recycle products that are currently recyclable. Therefore, in countries where recycling infrastructures are in place, plastics should be recycled. Any plastic with a recycling symbol and numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 can be recycled as long as you have the correct recycling systems in place. So look out for these recycling numbers and symbols. The most common types of recyclable plastic products in the home will be water bottles, milk bottles, shampoo bottles, takeaway boxes, yogurt containers and margarine tubs. As long as the infrastructure is available, there is no reason why items should go to landfill or end up in our oceans.
In countries where the correct waste disposal systems do not exist, there is a huge business opportunity for the waste industry to tap into.
Which plastic is not recyclable?
Hard plastics are often not recyclable. For example, plant pots and disposable cutlery are not easily recyclable. Black trays used for chilled and frozen foods are not recyclable either. In countries where a mechanical recycling infrastructure exists, a mechanical method for sorting and processing the waste takes place. This system will detect materials and navigate them to the correct area. The black plastic trays are not detectable by these mechanical systems and therefore missed during the sorting process and end up in the waste to landfill pile.
Which plastics should we avoid?
To ensure we do not continue drowning in plastics:
- Avoid using non-essential plastic products especially those that do not have a recycling symbol and numbers 1 to 7.
- Reduce or eliminate your use of single use and hard plastics as identified in the above paragraph.
The most common types of non-essential single use plastics are:
- carrier bags
- plastic wrapping bags
- cling film
- food trays
- ready meals
- freezer bags
- sandwich bags
- drink straws
These plastic items are often thrown away after a single use. Needless to say, plastics that are not recyclable, will end up in a landfill, incinerated or find their way into the ocean.
The advantages of recycling plastics
By continuously recycling plastics, we can optimise its life span and ensure that we are producing new products using old plastic, thereby reducing the need for more fossil fuels and energy. By ensuring that we continue to recycle correctly, is also means that we can drastically reduce plastic pollution on land and water. Introducing and improving the infrastructure for better waste management will also create a new economy and employ people.
The many uses of plastic
Although plastics have recently come under immense scrutiny due to plastic pollution, there are many benefits of plastics. It is such a versatile material that it is used in virtually every application. You will find it in a variety of sectors, including manufacturing of equipment, airplanes, and cars, to packaging medicines, food and even construction materials, for example, plastics:
- Keep food safe and fresh,
- Improve safety, i.e. bicycle helmets, child safety seats and airbags,
- Lighten the overall weight of products i.e. computers, mobile phones, televisions, game consoles,
- Improve efficiency of homes i.e. pvc windows, roofs etc.
We should not ignore the versatility and benefits of plastics due to the current problems. Instead, we should look to reduce the use of non-essential single use plastics, improve recycling infrastructures, increase the types of materials we can recycle and improve behaviours so that we continue to recycle what we can currently recycle. A number of alternatives are now available on the market. Opting for the alternatives such as reusable freezer containers, metal straws and food tubs will drastically drive down the amount of plastic we discard thereby addressing plastic pollution.
To Sum it Up
To address our plastic pollution problem, as a society, we should:
- Improve recycling infrastructure.
- Increase the recyclability of bulky plastic products.
- Standardise the waste management and recycling systems globally so that everyone everywhere follows the same recycling process.
- Create a recycling and waste management industry where it does not exist.
- Increase awareness of recycling by engaging with our communities.
- Design better products and packaging using a circular economy model
- Reduce our fast-paced consumption habits.
- Tighten the disposal routes to eliminate rogue traders.