Much like a lot of people I know, I had never thought for too long about the problem of plastic waste disposal. I knew that plastic was “bad for the environment”, and if the topic of conversation surfaced I would timidly argue that we must reduce our waste, but it was not of real concern to me. All of that changed the other day, and I woke up from my indifference to face the true magnitude of our plastic problem.
I was clearing a garden in a small town in Colombia, weeding and taking out the unwanted plants to leave a mound of disused soil that could be used for the vegetable beds. To make it fit for the plants, we sifted the soil through an over-sized colander, to remove any unwanted bits and pieces. What we found was astounding. In one square metre of soil we extracted about 10kg of plastic. I had been wondering how the streets were so clean in a town devoid of public rubbish bins, and it turns out that a large proportion is simply chucked over the wall into various establishments.
The plastic came in all shapes and sizes, ranging from crisp packets to hair combs; but the most prevalent perpetrator was the humble sweet wrapper. Lollipops, bonbons, bubble gum, and of course Hall’s Mints. I suppose the kids in the village gorge themselves after school and in the absence of a public bin they throw the residue wrappers over the wall, rather than taking them home to their disapproving mothers.
I was appalled at the sheer quantity of plastic in such a small area. But if there is one positive thing that came out of it, it’s that it got me thinking. If there was 10kg of plastic in one square metre of soil in one garden, in one town in Colombia, then imagine the scale of plastic waste worldwide.
It turns out we’re producing a lot. The most significant contributor to the problem is plastic drinks bottles, of which we purchase one million every minute. That equated to around 480bn plastic bottles being sold in 2016, which is 180bn more than what was sold in 2006. Most of these plastic bottles are made from the recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), but it is estimated that only 22-43% of the plastic used globally is actually recycled. The rest ends up going to landfill or into our oceans.
A study conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) found that 8m tonnes of plastic finds its way into the ocean every year, which has a negative effect on our ecosystem and food chain. Plymouth University, for example, found that one third of UK-caught fish contained plastic in some form.
So, the scale of the problem is huge, but what can we do? Well I think it’s useful to think about two possible approaches to solving the problem as a species: bottom-up and top-down.
The bottom-up approach
We, the consumers and users of plastic, are partly responsible for the waste that is dumped into the environment each year. That means we can also be the driving force behind the change. As an individual, you can make small changes to your daily life to help reduce your plastic consumption. For example, purchasing a reusable metal water bottle instead of buying a disposable one every day; making your own packed lunch and bringing it into work in a container; asking for your drink without a straw. For more ideas, there are numerous online bloggers sharing their tips for reducing waste.
We should not only be thinking about ways to recycle our plastics, but also try to adjust our expectations of what packaging we really need. Do we really need all our food to come in fresh, new packaging each time? There are an increasing number of zero-waste shops (you can find your nearest one here), meaning your waste consumption can drop even further. If the demand for these types of shops grows, we can expect to see more of them cropping up. And if small zero-waste shops take away business from the larger supermarkets, they will surely follow suit to remain in the game.
But it’s often difficult to feel as though you as an individual can make an impact, and it’s true. Alone, you are powerless. Therefore, it’s also our responsibility to influence and inform others as to the importance of reducing our consumption. It can be difficult to pull your friend up on something you think they shouldn’t be doing, but we have to get over the social awkwardness if we want to bring about change. If everybody in the UK consumed half the amount of disposable plastic bottles, there would be 8m fewer bottles ending up in landfill every day. So, make the change yourself, and convince others to do the same. Small changes add up.
The top-down approach
Whilst we as consumers have part of the responsibility, the onus is also on governments and manufacturers. We’ve seen in the UK that changes to government policy regarding plastic can have a massive impact on behaviour. The 5p bag tax that was introduced last year reduced consumption of plastic bags in the major supermarkets by 80%, from 7.64bn plastic bags used in a year to 1.3bn.
The bag tax is a great starting point, but there’s still much more that can be done. The government could include the effects of plastic waste into the school curriculum to increase awareness in children, or tax products that do not use recycled material to encourage companies to act more sustainably. According to the British Plastics Federation, creating a bottle made from 100% recycled plastic uses 75% less energy than forming a new one from scratch. So, not only can we reduce plastic waste, but we can also reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.
However, many of the big brands do not want to cooperate. According to Greenpeace, the top 6 drinks manufacturers combined use recycled PET (RPet) in just 6% of their products. The reason for this is that the bottles made from RPet don’t have the transparent shiny gleam that we as consumers expect.
So here you can see where the two approaches intermingle. Coca-Cola, who produces 100bn plastic bottles per year, refuses to use RPet because they believe sales will drop. If we shift our perspective about what we expect in our products, and are satisfied with an RPet bottle, then there is more incentive for these companies to change.
Coupled with that, governments ought to put pressure on these companies to behave more ecologically. Aside from taxing non-recycled containers, they could incentivise the use of alternative forms of packaging to plastic, of which there are many. Innovators around the world are devising new types of packaging every day, from mushroom-based containers to edible wrapping.
A combination of the two approaches can bring about change, but really it starts with you. The only way governments and companies will change is by making your voice heard. Change your purchasing behaviour, talk to your friends, sign petitions, change your consumer expectations, and we will be able to put the brakes on this seemingly endless train of plastic consumption.