Why is plastic such a big problem anyway?
As we learned from The Sound of Music, the beginning is a very good place to start. So in this blog post we’ve decided to go back to basics and look at why plastic pollution is such a big deal in the first place.
Bear with us: there's quite a bit to get through…
A finite resource
Plastics are derived from crude oil. To cut a long story short, basically you take the hydrocarbons that oil is made of and mix them together to form plastics, which will have different properties depending on precisely which hydrocarbons and other ingredients you throw into the mix. Clever as all this is, there’s a fundamental flaw in the plan: oil is a limited resource with potentially as few as 50 years of reserves left.
Yet at the moment more than 90% of our plastic is produced from virgin fossil fuels. This means that plastic is responsible for around 6% of global oil consumption – the same amount as the aviation sector.
Now, we’re not saying plastic is an entirely bad thing. Plastic has allowed us to progress in all sorts of fields - take medicine for example, which relies on plastic for making heart valves and even MRI machine casings. But if we’re likely to run out of the raw material behind plastic in just 50 years, surely we shouldn’t be squandering our finite oil reserves on single-use products when there are all these other much more worthwhile uses for plastic.
You’re probably aware that flying contributes to global warming, but did you realise that plastic is a big carbon polluter too?
Each kg of plastic we manufacture produces about 6 kg of carbon dioxide. And with plastic consumption still growing, the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050 plastics will be responsible for nearly 15% of global carbon emissions (aviation currently produces 12% of emissions).
And while paper and other plastic alternatives also emit CO2 during manufacture, just bear in mind that the paper industry accounts for only 1% of global greenhouse emissions.
Now, you may be wondering why we can’t just recycle plastic so that we don't have to go to the effort of avoiding it. It’s a fair point, but there are various reasons why recycling isn’t going to save us from our plastic addiction. Firstly (and it’s upsetting to admit this because we’re keen recyclers ourselves) recycled plastic generally gets “downcycled” into something of poorer quality. This means that, even in the best-case scenario, plastics are only recycled once or twice before ending up in landfill anyway. We’ve written a bit about this here.
Like with the previous point about CO2 production, recycling of course has its own carbon footprint. If we can avoid that in the first place, we’re on to a winner.
There are economic issues at play here too: some kinds of plastic are easier to recycle, and some kinds of recycled plastic are more in demand. This means that there’s an incentive for recycling companies to prioritise the popular, more recyclable kinds of plastic and ignore others, potentially abandoning them to landfill. And with countries such as China no longer accepting the UK’s waste plastic, we don’t always have a means of recycling it.
Microplastics and ocean plastic
If you’ve seen the BBC’s Blue Planet, you’ll be familiar with the problem of ocean plastics. Likewise if you live on or near the coast. In fact, plastic is so pervasive that it has even been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest point in the ocean.
But beyond those images of plastic rubbish floating in the ocean, there's another big concern: microplastics. As the name suggests, they’re minuscule bits of plastic that are created when those larger bits of plastic waste break down. These tiny, invisible particles can be swallowed by animals, building up inside their bodies and gradually moving up the food chain.
And the cause of microplastics isn't just litter breaking down. Every time you do the laundry, plastic fibres from your clothing get washed down the drain. In fact, a whopping 63% of microplastic pollution comes from our washing machines. In the UK, even though our water treatment plants are able to filter out more than 90% of these microplastics, the sheer volume means that huge amounts of microplastics are still escaping into the ocean.
The result of all this is that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
Doesn’t it seem wasteful to design a product to be used once and then binned? The idea of disposability is so ingrained in our culture that we often don’t question it at all, even when it’s completely unnecessary. The fact that plastic waste will be around forever only makes the notion of disposability worse.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We all saw how attitudes changed with the introduction of the plastic carrier bag charge. Things like food packaging, wet wipes, cling film and sandwich bags are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to disposables, yet they can all be easily replaced with reusable products – just take a look at the What Plastic store or our plastic alternatives blog post for inspiration.
You might be thinking, “But I’m just one person. What difference will it make if I cut out plastic?” If you and you alone were to reduce your use of plastic, you’re right, it wouldn’t have a massive impact on the world. But when hundreds, thousands and even millions of people do it – and when governments and major companies start taking action – that’s when real change happens.