Brief summary of plastic pollution
14th October 2023
Globally we produce more than 450 million tonnes of plastic per year. Half of this is single-use. Yet global plastic production is set to rise to 1.231 billion tonnes per year by 2060. Plastic pollution has become ubiquitous; it is found throughout our environment, and in humans and animals. An inventory found more than 10,000 chemicals which go into making plastics. Many of these are harmful to health, many are untested.
A study suggests that humans are ingesting around 5g of plastic a week through eating, drinking, and inhalation. For example, bioaccumulation of plastics occurs through food chains. Around 80% of cow and pig meat, blood, and milk contains plastic. Plastic has been found in our blood, lungs, livers, kidneys, spleens, and hearts. It wouldn’t be surprising if plastics are also found to be crossing the blood-brain barrier to enter our brains.
Studies are ongoing to find out what this plastic consumption means for human health. Phthalates, for example, are linked to autism. One of the most common plastics is Polyethylene Teraphthalate, often used to make single-use plastic bottles. Plastics leach into food and drink from packaging, termed chemical migration. Is it then any surprise that rates of autism have rocketed since the 1990s? Other chemicals that constitute plastics are known to cause cancers, hormone disruption, genetic mutations, birth defects, developmental disorders, dementia…
Plastic pollution causes injury and death to animals through entanglement, ingestion, smothering, and chemical leaching. For instance brain damage is caused in fish where plastic nanoparticles cross the blood-brain barrier. Many animals starve to death with stomachs full of plastic which cannot be digested.
In Swindon there used to be a lovely lady called Maggie who helped injured pigeons in the town centre. Quite often they were injured by plastic waste or entangled in plastic fibres, which take a long time to break down. More info on how animals in Swindon are injured by plastic pollution in this article written for us by RSPCA Oak and Furrows.
Loss of biodiversity
Nature is made up of a myriad of animals providing unique functions and interactions, contributing to vital processes and cycles, harmonising... As we poison our environment and its inhabitants, these natural processes are disturbed. Take earthworms for example. They play an essential role in the carbon cycle, break down organic matter, aerate the soil, provide nutrients for plants, prevent flooding… We know that earthworms that ingest plastic are smaller in size, which potentially has dangerous impacts on the soil ecosystem. This is but one example! Plastic / synthetic chemical pollution plays a key role in loss of biodiversity / mass extinction.
99% of plastics derive from fossil fuels. If we are to deal with climate change, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Plastic pollution directly contributes to climate change by the extraction, use, and burning of fossil fuels. Plastic pollution also indirectly contributes to climate change by interfering with the functions of animals and hence vital processes and cycles. For instance, the hindered ability of phytoplankton and zooplankton to store carbon in the oceans.
Turn off the tap
The best way to reduce plastic pollution is to reduce plastic production, to ‘turn off the tap’. The order of preference of the waste hierarchy is reduce, reuse, recycle.
We need strong legislation to introduce a timetable for reducing plastic production. More widely we need strong legislation on synthetic chemicals, a key driver of ecological crisis. The UK government have resisted supporting strong, effective legislation such as The Plastic Pollution Bill, instead introducing the ineffective Environment Act 2021 which includes weak measures such as The Plastic Packaging Tax.
We continue to wait for the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme. There was a public consultation in 2019 but we are now told that it will be introduced by October 2025 at the earliest.
Government corruption is a key concern. The government is funded and lobbied by the plastics industry and large corporations with vested interests in the continuance and expansion of plastic production and mass consumerism. For example, Coca Cola has lobbied against the introduction of Deposit Return Schemes. Profit over people.
Continuing with the theme of mass consumerism, the system of capitalism continues to drive production at any costs. Neo-liberal economics, which has dominated mainstream political thinking and policies for the past 50 years, claimed that markets would regulate themselves. That has not been the case. Deregulation has enabled powerful corporations and institutions to dominate. Deregulation has created gross inequality, responsible for all kinds of social and environmental maladies such as increases in crime, mental health disorders, distrust, climate change, and (plastic) pollution. It’s imperative that we either reform capitalism or find another system(s).
Local is best
One of the most powerful remedies for the maladies which emanate from the oppressive global system of production and trade is to support local and independent. Supermarkets, for instance, are reliant on cheap plastic for use in transporting products long distances. If we buy local, we often don’t need the packaging. There are many environmental, social, and economic benefits to supporting local and independent. Check out Swindon’s local Refill / zero waste champions.
With corrupt governments and powerful corporate interests misleading people and resisting the changes that we need to implement, the actions of us all become increasingly important. There are many ways that we can reduce plastic pollution, positively influence others and create a brighter, greener future. Be the change. See our ‘take action’ section.
Plastic / chemical recycling
Plastic recycling doesn’t work! Plastics recycling is highly polluting, using energy and resources. A study of a UK plastics recycling facility estimated that 75 billion microplastic particles were released per m³ of wastewater of what is considered ‘recyclable’ plastic.
Soft plastics put in Tesco’s recycling collection points in London were tracked by a journalist. The soft plastics were transported to Turkey via Poland where they were incinerated!
There are what seem to be recycling symbols on some items of plastic. These are actually resin identification codes. They were created by the plastics industry in the 1980s, giving the impression that plastic can be recycled. This is despite the plastics industry knowing since the 1970s that plastic recycling could not be made viable. A system of plastic recycling enables plastic pollution! We must do better!
Waste incineration / waste-to-energy
Although promoted by industry and the government as a good way to harness energy, waste incineration / waste-to-energy is highly polluting, reduces recycling rates, exacerbates climate change, and is a barrier to a circular economy. It has no place in a zero waste system. We can and must do better!
Putting waste in landfills pollutes the environment and produces greenhouse gases.
Exporting waste / illegal dumping
Plastic waste is exported because there is no good way to deal with it. The Basel Convention was introduced to try and stop wealthy nations such as the UK dumping waste on poor countries. Illegal dumping is a convenient way to hide the scale of plastic pollution from the public and still continues.
There are many problems with bioplastics such as the requirement for land, energy and a resources, a lack of standards, a lack of waste disposal facilities, the inclusion of toxic plasticisers and fossil-based plastics, and a heavy environmental footprint. Back to the waste hierarchy, reduce, reuse, recycle. Why create unnecessary materials in the first place?