The problems with plastic pollution. (Photo by Richard Carey)
As pollution, environmental damage and climate change slowly become buzzwords in our everyday lives, more and more of us are becoming increasingly aware of our impacts on the environment. However, there is an everyday convenience, a sinister product of a recalcitrant nature that’s causing great environmental problems; single use plastic.
Single use plastics or disposable plastics, as their name suggests, are used only once before they are thrown away and consist of items such as straws, plastic bags, water bottles, coffee cups, drink stirrers and food packaging. These single use plastics infiltrate our everyday lives and we now consider them a normality and a convenience. It is our addiction to these plastics that has driven a demand for their production and in turn, a global environmental problem.
Plastic has only been in mass production for around 50 years, and globally we produce around 300 million tons of plastic each year, half of which is single use or disposable. Fossil fuels take millions of years to form, they are then mined and manufactured into single use plastics, shipped across the world to be used for a couple of minutes and then thrown away. Its numbers like these that highlight our addiction to convenient items making us increasingly aware of our environmental impact and need for a more sustainable alternative. Us Brits use around 7.7 billion water bottles a year, and as not all of us recycle, 5.5 billion of these end up as waste. With plastic bottles taking 450 to 1000 years to decompose we should really start to reuse our disposable plastics and grasp a better understanding of what is happening to these so called throw away plastics in our environment.
Once they have been disposed of they will end up in landfill where they will not fully biodegrade but breakdown into tiny particles, releasing toxic chemicals which make their way into our food chain and water supply – it is not yet known the full implications of this on human health. If these plastics do not make it to landfill they inevitably find their way into our oceans, and it is here where the greatest environmental damage is caused. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, imagine swimming in a sea of plastic?
As wind, waves and sunlight break down these plastics into microplastics another issue is generated. Microplastics and microbeads are easily mistaken as food by marine life and sea birds. These microplastics are near impossible to remove from the ocean and new surveys show them to outnumber plankton, the base of the marine food chain. As our demand for single use plastics increase so too does our damaging impact on the marine environment.
With such an overwhelming quantity of single use plastics available to us in our everyday lives, it can be difficult to see where or how we could begin to change and reduce its impact. But by simply just being made aware of this issue is a starting point. Ask yourself the question; do I really need to use a straw at the bar? Could I reuse my water bottle next time I go to the gym? These tiny changes reduce the demand for production, in-turn reducing the waste ending up in our oceans.
Alongside public awareness are some innovative solutions to our plastic addiction. One of my personal favourites is a biodegradable water bottle made from algae based products, the brainchild of Icelandic student called Ari Jonsson. He read an article about the amount of single use plastic pollution generated and thought about how he could reduce this environmental issue. His water bottle design is 100% biodegradable and when liquid is contained it keeps its shape, but once empty, it begins to decompose. This product is only at a concept stage and Ari himself states that it “isn’t the perfect solution” for our plastic bottle problem, but it is a start, and it’s with a start that great change can be made.
Closer to home and in action already, Borough Market in London has become the first street market in Britain to ban the sale of disposable plastic water bottles. They have introduced drinking fountains within the market in a bid to encourage people to refill and reuse their water bottles and reduce ocean plastic pollution. Hopefully other markets will catch on with this scheme and London’s water bottle demand will drastically decrease.
With small steps a large change can be made, we all have the planets best interests at heart and we can all do our own little bit to help. Whether it’s as small as reusing your water bottle, purchasing a metal straw for your cold beverages or buying a reusable coffee mug, every little action helps reduce the demand for single use plastic. No one wants to see an ocean full of plastic.
Sign up to our weekly digest of interesting things we've found in conservation around the world.
Expect one email per week and no spam.