If you are reading this then it stands to reason that you are concerned about plastic pollution and what it is doing to our planet.
You might have seen video clips of scuba divers, battling their way through tonnes of plastic waste in the oceans. Or you may have read about the enormous swathe of plastic waste now floating in the Pacific Ocean. If you haven’t heard of it it’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and it contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic waste.
‘A huge, swirling pile of trash in the Pacific Ocean is growing faster than expected and is now three times the size of France.’ Source – CNN
This area of floating plastic was first discovered in 1997 by oceanographer Charles Moore. He describes, what should have been a pristine ocean from horizon to horizon:
“It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”
So where is all this plastic pollution coming from?
Plastic is cheap and has many uses. So many uses in fact that we produce almost 300 million tons of plastic every year. The problem is that half of that amount produced is destined for single use only. The 21st century has seen a rise in a more ‘disposable’ lifestyle. This way of living has ended up with well over 8 million tons of plastic thrown away and ending up in our oceans.
‘Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste.’ Source – Science Advances
That means only 9% has been recycled. The vast majority is sitting in landfills, lying on the earth as litter, where at some point it will most likely end up in our oceans.
The problem with plastic pollution
Now we know how much plastic is around, why is it so harmful to our environment?
1. There’s too much plastic
The oceans are essential in sustaining life on earth for the following reasons:
- 70% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by marine plants growing in the oceans.
- 97% of the Earth’s water supply is contained in the oceans.
- 30% of harmful CO2 emissions are absorbed by the oceans.
With so much plastic waste floating on and in the oceans, there are now reported areas that have no marine life. The largest being the 5000sq miles of the Gulf of Mexico, which in 2014 was almost totally devoid of life. To date, there are over 405 of these ‘dead zone’ areas, where plastic pollution has caused oxygen levels to fall drastically.
2. It doesn’t break down
Plastic takes up to 1000 years to break down naturally, which means at the moment we are playing catch-up. Plastic does not biodegrade but it does photodegrade. This means that it never really disappears, more likely it becomes a resilient ‘plastic dust’.
‘By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight.’ Source – Plastic Pollution Coalition
3. It’s harmful to aquatic life
A well as dead zone areas in oceans, aquatic animals are at risk because they ingest parts of plastic. They can get caught on plastic and plastic can get stuck in their mouths.
4. It contains toxins
When plastics do break down eventually, they release harmful toxins that are deadly to any marine life. They also soak up dangerous chemicals such as pesticides when they do break down.
5. Sustains the petrol industry
Producing plastic for the US alone uses 331 billion barrels of petroleum, and this production plays a deadly role in polluting our environment. It not only contaminates the water but the air as well.
How can you stop plastic pollution
Whether these facts make you feel helpless or motivated, there are several things we can do. You might not think that a single person has much impact when it comes to stopping plastic pollution, but you’d be wrong.
In the UK, the RSPB (bird society) magazine featured a story on a gull wrapped in a single-use plastic bag. Several of their readers pointed out that the magazine sent out from the RSPB was also wrapped in a plastic bag. RSPB have now stopped using single-use plastic when they post out magazines.
All it took for this change to happen was just a few members who posted Twitter.
Here are 10 more ways to help reduce plastic pollution:
1. Use your own shopping bags
In the UK the government added a 5p charge on all single-use plastic carrier bags in supermarkets. These charges have led to an 80% drop in plastic bag use. This means less plastic waste going into landfills and oceans. The message is simple – use your own shopping bags.
‘The UK throws away 2.5 billion coffee cups every year, enough to stretch around the planet roughly five and a half times.’ Source – UK Government
2. Take your own thermos to the coffee shop
Better still if it’s made from recycled plastic! Disposable coffee cups cannot be recycled because they are made using a tightly bonded plastic lining. The UK is already considering a ‘latte tax’, a tax of 25p on each coffee cup and public opinion seems to support it.
3. Don’t buy bottled water
If the end of the world appears to be starting any time soon, then bottled water certainly would be handy. In today’s society, where you can get water readily from a tap, there’s absolutely no need for buying bottles of water. Use the ones you already have.
4. Refuse any single-use items
Refuse to buy anything that is disposable, such as razors, cotton buds with plastic stems, disposable lighters, and plastic cutlery. Plastic straws are particularly dangerous to wildlife as they can get caught up in noses or mistaken for food. Do your bit by buying items that you can reuse or get parts for.
5. Watch your face products
There has been a lot of discussion about the effects of microbeads in face and body scrubs. These tiny beads look like food to certain aquatic animals and once digested can prove to be toxic. Look for alternatives that use natural ingredients such as apricot and walnut shells.
6. Recycle everything and spread the word!
It might seem like common sense but I had family members, up until a few months ago that believed everything they put in the trash was sorted and recycled. It goes without saying that no one likes to be preached to, but recycling is the simplest and biggest thing you can do to prevent plastic pollution.
7. Cook more from scratch
Cooking at home from scratch usually means less plastic takeout containers or plastic bags. When in the supermarket, buy loose veg and fruit, and give back any unwanted packaging.
8. Buy second-hand goods
Part of stopping plastic ending up in landfills and the oceans is to keep reusing it. You might think, well it’s still on the planet so what’s the difference? The difference is that it isn’t floating in the ocean, getting stuck in some birds’ gullet, lying in a landfill slowly releasing toxic chemicals, or using up energy by being remade.
“We’ve seen albatrosses come back with their belly full of food for their young. You think it’s going to be squid, but it’s plastic.” David Attenborough
9. Lobby manufacturers
We, consumers, have more power than we think. If demand falls so will supply. So get onto manufacturers and let them know, via social media or otherwise, that you do not want plastic products or packaging.
‘We know that roughly 80% of litter in the seas comes from land.’ Source – Greenpeace
10. Be proactive
UK wildlife expert Chris Packham told a BBC program that he regularly picks up litter, particularly plastics, where he lives. He also said that it was up to us to be proactive and that every little piece of plastic collected would count. So next time you see a disposable water bottle, or a yogurt pot or similar lying on the ground, why not collect it and recycle?
With a collective effort, we can stop the amount of plastic waste. If everyone does their bit, however small, we can manage plastic pollution.
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