The Problem With Plastic Pollution

We’ve all seen the headlines about Planet Earth becoming Planet Plastic but for most of us that plastic bag, coffee cup, or water bottle is used once and then thrown away without barely another thought. If we’re honest it barely even enters our consciousness.

And then Blue Planet II came long and blew all that out of the water!

So how much plastic pollution is there in the planet’s ecosystems. A massive challenge for any study, but that hasn’t deterred scientists at the University of Georgia. Indeed they have calculated that there is around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic in the Earth’s environment. Again a difficult figure to quantify but it is the equivalent of 80 million blue whales or 1 billion elephants. That is a considerable amount of plastic pollution.

plastic pollution

The modern convenience of rubbish disposal and collection mean that our plastic problem once out of sight… is out of mind.

And yet its been 4 years since 2014 when, in the UK, the Government decided to ban plastic. So what’s happened since then?

The results are in, and they are pretty good. According to research by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs there has been a massive reduction in the use of single-use plastic carrier bags. Their data indicates that there has been a 83% reduction in the number of plastic bags issued by retailers with individuals going from using around 140 single use bags per year to around 25, an unbelievable reduction of six billion bags since the plastic bag charge was introduced in late 2015.

So if plastic bags is not yet banned in your country, write to your relevant Government Department.

…But it’s not just plastic bags that have become taboo. Across society people are beginning to shun all sorts of one time use plastics that we use on daily basis. The UK Government is considering a ban on plastic straws and cotton buds in England, whilst the EU is seeking to implement a ban on all single use plastics.

Ultimately a significant amount of this plastic ends of in our oceans where it is causing huge damage and huge, potentially unknown consequences for the future health of the oceans and, for anyone who eats seafood, potential health problems for us as microplastics accumulate in the food chain.

Plastic gets to the ocean in a number of ways, as Greenpeace has highlighted here:

And in Blue Planet II David Attenborough revealed:

We’ve seen albatrosses come back with their belly full of food for their young and nothing in it. The albatross parent has been away for three weeks gathering stuff for her young and what comes out?

What does she give her chick? You think it’s going to be squid, but it’s plastic. The chick is going to starve and die.

We may think we live a long way from the oceans but we don’t. What we actually do here … has a direct effect on the oceans and what the oceans do then reflects back on us.

Indeed one of the most distressing sequences of Blue Planet II was witnessing Adult Albatrosses feeding their chick bits of plastic

Blue Planet II has provided us with a seminal moment, one in which the tide has begun to turn against plastic. Scenes of dead and dying sea birds have, distressing as they are, helped to cement in the public conscious the damaging effects of plastic pollution on our blue planet’s ocean ecosystems.

One time use plastic is beginning to become taboo and people, communities and governments are becoming more and more aware of the pervasive use of plastic in microbeads, wet wipes, coffee cups and even… glitter. No one is immune to the change in public perception and even Gary Barlow was widely castigated for using plastic confetti at a concert at the Eden Project – the largest indoor rainforest in the world.

To give up plastic completely requires a much wider root and branch approach. After all it is in everything we buy from the supermarket. For most people shopping for their groceries cannot be done without the use of plastic containers that hold their fish, meat, vegetable or fruit.

Although recycling rates are increasing the waste industry needs a radical rethink to match the demand for its services. Traditionally plastic recycling waste has been shipped to China adding a huge CO2 footprint to the industry, however with a recent decision by China to ban all foreign recyclable waste there need to be a much greater focus on local recycling facilities and an emphasis on closing the loop so that plastic materials are never removed from the cycle of human consumption and into the environment.

Whilst this is an idealistic position, in the real world it is incredibly difficult to limit all of the avenues by which plastic finds it’s ways into the oceans. Realistically the key focus should be for us to reduce our plastic consumption so that the problem can be tackled from both ends. Plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years and to quadruple by 2050, so this is a problem that is not going to go away.

Perhaps if we started to view plastic as a taboo, in the same way that smoking is now considered a social taboo, then we could start to reduce our plastic addiction.

Initiatives like The Ocean Cleanup are exploring innovative technological solutions to remove the heavy going plastics that haven’t yet degraded into microplastics from the oceans, whilst recognising the problem also needs to be tackled much closer to home.

So what about the steps we can take right now to reduce our plastic consumption. Check out: 10 Ways to Live a Plastic Free Lifestyle & Save Dollar!

Deeply entrenched habits are changing and people are beginning to see the impact of plastic pollution, through the revealing depictions as shown in Blue Planet II. And there are ways to reduce the plastic in your life as we have covered in our 10 Step Guide to removing plastic from your life. However, the biggest catalysts of change, as the plastic bag charge have demonstrated, are financial penalties for use of plastics and changes to the law to prohibit their use.

It’s simply not enough for individuals to act one by one.  Whilst inspiring others to change, we must come together as a society to lobby our politicians, to campaign against the corporations and to encourage each other to choose a plastic free planet.