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The Plastic Pollution Crisis

Emily Stubbs
July 9, 2019

It was International Plastic Bag Free Day on 3rd July and we’ve taken this opportunity to take a deeper look at the plastic pollution crisis. The UN Environment Report estimates “that 1 to 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. Five trillion is almost 10 million plastic bags per minute.”

Barely a day goes by without a plastic pollution related story in the news or shown acoss social media, and the head of the United Nations Environment Programme has spoken of an “ocean Armageddon.” From supermarkets creating plastic-free aisles, to the banning of all plastic at this year’s Glastonbury and a state-wide plastic bag ban which will go into effect in New York in March 2020, there are widespread calls and movements to eradicate plastic from our plant. 

We take a deeper look at the plastic pollution crisis and some of the movements that are gaining momentum. 

What are some of the main plastic pollution challenges? 

Single use plastics, often referred to as disposable plastics, are items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These include straws, bottles, cups, bags, food packaging and cutlery. But the convenience and low-cost of these single-use items, and the lack of regulation around the correct way to recycle these, has meant our oceans have become dumping grounds for this plastic, killing life on land and life below water, as well as being consumed by livestock meaning it finds its way back into the food chain. 

Additionally, single use plastic is not easily disposable and when it ends up in landfills or discarded in the environment it can take up to a thousand years to decompose. As it breaks down year upon year, it does not decompose the way other materials such as wood do. It breaks down into smaller and smaller parts to become “microplastic” which end up on beaches where they are eaten by birds and other animals, and in the ocean where they are eaten by fish. 

Regulation around single-use plastics is however working to combat the issue. A single use plastics ban has been approved by the European Parliament and it is expected this will go into effect across the bloc by 2021. According to a U.N report 27 countries have also implemented some form of ban on other single-use plastics including packaging, straws, cups and plates and the more countries move towards similar regulation, the greater progress can be made. 

Plastic dumping

Countries like Australia, the United States and the UK export parts of their waste to countries like Thailand, Malaysia and India to be recycled there but this doesn’t mean these countries are better equipped to safely manage it have the adequate capacity of recycling of plastic waste needed. These countries are also starting to close their doors. Malaysia and Thailand have announced a ban on plastic waste imports by 2021 and India is the latest country to follow suit, prohibiting the import of solid waste on 1st March 2019 as part of its pledge to totally phase out single-use plastic by 2022. 

By closing their doors it will hopefully force countries with high levels of waste export to redirect this investment into developing their own domestic recycling capacity, creating safer systems at home and reducing the negative environmental impacts of plastic dumping. 

Recognising plastic’s benefits 

But not all plastic is bad, and the healthcare sector is one industry which is heavily reliant on plastic for many life saving treatments. From MRI scanners and blood bags to new heart valves and pacemakers, the plastic being used is both durable and malleable. Single use plastic gloves and syringes remove the need for sterilizing and re-use and so reduce the risk of disease and contamination. 

It has also revolutionised the food industry and is one of the most important ways of protecting food from spoiling and reducing the risk of contamination from other foods or people throughout the supply chain. Plastic packaging allows food to travel greater distances and stay longer on shelves meaning the potential for food waste, which carries a large environmental impact, is reduced.  

What are some of the plastic ban movements gaining traction in the UK?

The move to eradicate plastic from the planet is ambitious and involves radical interventions at each stage of the supply chain, but local movements that tackle specific challenges at a regulation or business level are gaining traction and attention in the UK. 

  • Kids Against Plastic Campaign

Set up by Amy and Ella Meek, aged 15 and 13, Kids Against Plastic a charity that uses education and action to raise awareness of the negative effect single-use plastic is having on the environment. The scale of the plastic crisis on our environment, and in particular on life below water, has been particularly engaged with by young people whose commitment to reduce the effects of climate change and protect their future is a driving force in amplifying calls for change and creating solutions. 

They have picked up over 60,000 pieces of single-use plastic litter and convened a team of kids from around the UK who are committed to tackling plastic pollution, as well as working with over 50 cafes, schools, businesses, festivals and even councils to become plastic clever. The big goal they are working towards is getting UK supermarkets to stock non-plastic packaged water alternatives on their shelves, and take single-use plastic bottles off them. 

  • Greenpeace’s Plastic Free Rivers campaign 

Greenpeace’s “dead whale” campaign in May 2017 went viral and shocked people globally through this visual and direct message on the fatal effects of plastic pollution in the ocean, winning multiple awards. They have now carried out the biggest ever survey of plastic in our inland waters across the UK with scientists and wildlife experts and the results conducted on 13 rivers have shown that plastic was detected in every one of them. The River Mersey was proportionally more polluted than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, containing the equivalent of 2 million pieces of microplastic per square km.

Greenpeace are calling for an Environment Bill which sets out new and ambitious targets to reduce single-use plastic to stop the crisis escalating and create an independent watchdog to enforce and monitor these targets. They recognise the power that each of us have to add our voice to the call for change and are encouraging UK citizens to spread the word across social media to influence MPs at a local level to pledge their commitment to this new Bill. The more people that take action and raise awareness across the UK, the more likely MPs are to act and create the strong regulation needed to reduce the damage already done to the natural world.

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