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The Plastic Pollution Issues

Every piece of plastic that’s ever been created still exists in our world. Plastic pollution poses a significant threat to our environment. Single-use plastic is manufactured to last forever, yet is often used for only a few minutes, before being thrown away.

Single-use plastics

Plastic was originally designed in the early 1900s to replace natural materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell, but its production has escalated to extreme levels. The production of plastic has surpassed all other man-made materials except steel and cement, and it’s expected to increase by 40% over the next decade. 

Between 1950 and 2015, an estimated 7,800 million tonnes of plastics were manufactured, and half of this was produced in the last 13 years alone [1].

So where has all this plastic gone? 

  • 79% has accumulated in landfill or in the natural environment [1]
  • 12% has been incinerated [1]
  • 9% has been recycled [1]

That’s right – billions of tonnes of the plastic we’ve produced still exists somewhere in the world. Plastic pollution is building up in our oceans, throughout our natural environment and even in the stomachs of our precious wildlife. While recycling efforts can make a difference, we can’t completely recycle our way out of the plastic issue.

The problems with plastic

The growing rate of plastic production raises problems in many areas of our society. It’s contributing to waste and pollution issues, it’s impacting our health, and it’s threatening our oceans and wildlife.

Waste and plastic pollution

  • We go through 10 billion plastic bags worldwide every week
  • Plastics don’t break down, they break up, becoming a permanent pollutant in our environment

 Health impacts

  • Microplastics have been reported in food for human consumption [1]. the average person could be eating up to 5 grams of plastic a week [2]
  • Microplastics may also be inhaled and have been found in human organs and revealed in the placentas of unborn babies [3]
  • Toxic chemicals such as phthalates and BPA are present in the plastic foods packaging

Threat to oceans and wildlife

  • 8 million tonnes of plastic pollution enters our oceans each year[3]
  • It’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish [5]
  • More than 270 marine species are affected by marine debris [6] through ingestion, entanglement and chemical contamination [7]
  • In the next 30 years, 99% of seabirds will have ingested plastic [6]
  • Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) represents a major sea-based source of marine debris in the worlds oceans [8]*

Recycling plastic is not enough

  • Only 9% of our plastic has been recycled, and only 10% of that has been recycled more than once [4]
  • Recycled plastics are mostly downcycled, meaning that they’re recycled into products of lesser quality which are less likely to be further recycled
  • Recycling is important, but will never be the solution to our rapidly expanding plastic consumption

The plastic pollution solutions

When we hear plastic pollution facts, it can be easy to feel hopeless about our situation. But the Plastic Free Foundation has shown that small changes, by millions of people, all add up and can make a large impact. 

Plastic Free July is designed to help people refuse single-use plastic and improve plastic recycling practices. We can each make a world of difference by doing things such as using reusable cups, water bottles and plastic bags, and choosing to refuse plastic-wrapped items.

At a larger scale, we can also influence our communities to embrace long-lasting solutions and influence business and governments to take action.

Reuse and recycle

Explore reuse models such as ‘cup libraries’ and container refill and reuse schemes to reduce the need for single-use plastic. Give recycling a chance by following your local recycling guide and putting items in the right bin. Petition governments to require businesses to use recycled plastic in their products and packaging. 

Circulate 

Encourage businesses and organisations to move away from the concept of ‘take, make and throw away’ and towards a circular economy that promotes recycling and the reuse of materials. Push businesses to own the product management lifecycle and support ones that do through redesign and innovation. Container deposit schemes are a good example of this – they reduce littering by an average of 40% and increase recycling too [9]

 Eliminate 

Increase our single-use plastic bans to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging. Many countries have taken great leaps towards banning single-use plastic bags in recent years, but more can be done. By banning items such as lightweight plastic bags, foam packaging and balloon releases, consumers and businesses alike are forced to find alternatives to plastic.

You can make a genuine difference to the issue of plastic use by joining the Plastic Free July challenge today. 

*We acknowledge sustainable fisheries are critical to food security, economies, cultures and livelihoods around the world.

References

  1. Human Consumption of Microplastics – Kieran D. Cox, Garth A. Covernton, Hailey L. Davies, John F. Dower, Francis Juanes and Sarah E. Dudas. American Chemical Society, 2019.
  2. No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion from Nature to People – commissioned by WWF and carried out by University of Newcastle, 2019
  3. Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta – Antonio Ragusa, Alessandro Svelato, Criselda Santacroce, Piera Catalano, Valentina Notarstefano, Oliana Carnevali, Fabrizio Papa, Mauro Ciro Antonio Rongioletti, Federico Baiocco, Simonetta Draghi, Elisabetta D’Amore, Denise Rinaldo Maria Matta, Elisabetta Giorgini. 2020
  4. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made – Roland Geyer, Jenna R Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law. Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 7, 2017, e1700782, advances.
  5. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, World Economic Forum and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Isle of Wight, UK: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016.
  6. The threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive and increasing  – Chris Wilcox, Erik van Sebille and Britta Denise Hardesty, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 2015, 112(38), pp.11899–11904
  7. Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife – Chris Wilcox, Nicholas J.Mallos, George H.Leonard, AlbaRodriguez and Britta Denise Hardesty, Marine Policy, Mar 2016, vol. 65, pp.107-114
  8. Challenges and misperceptions around global fishing gear loss estimates, Kelsey Richardson, Chris Wilcox, Joanna Vince and Britta Denise Hardesty, Marine Policy, July 2019, 104522.
  9. Economic incentives reduce plastic inputs to the oceanQamar Schuyler, Britta Denise Hardesty, TJ Lawson, Kimberley Opie, Chris Wilcox, ScienceDirect, 2018. 
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