Last night I was listening to the latest episode of the WWF podcast, ‘Call of the Wild’ (Call of the Wild podcast | WWF). Naturalist, Steve Backshall, was in conversation with the host, Cel Spellman about plastic pollution and the effect that single use plastics are having on the planet. So of course, this prompted me to do some more investigating and I wanted to share what I found with as many people as possible! I know what you’re thinking, oh no not another person ranting online about plastics, we’ve heard it all before! That’s not my aim. My aim is just to pass on a message that we have all heard a lot of recently but doesn’t seem to be getting through to everyone just yet. So until it does, and until we start to see a positive change, I guess we just have to keep going on about it.
So, plastic. Convenient isn’t it. How much plastic do you think you use everyday. Stop for a second and count the amount of plastic items you can see around you. I can see a kids balance bike, an iPad case, a drinks bottle, a couple of plant pots. I’m pretty much surrounded. It’s a really useful product of course and has a long history, the first man made plastic was exhibited at the Great International Exhibition in London in 1862 and since then it has spiraled and expanded into the versatile product we literally see everywhere today. The Plastic Empire. But, like the ‘Call of the ‘Wild’ podcast, it’s not these plastic items we have in our home that I want to talk about. It’s the single use plastics that we chuck in the bin the minute we are finished with them. Next task, go to your fridge and count the amount of products that are packaged in single use plastic. At a guess it’ll be mainly fruit and veg, wrapped for no reason in an oversized, single use plastic bag. Some fruit even has it’s own natural packaging and yet we humans still feel it necessary to wrap our bananas up – they literally have their own biodegradable wrapper.
Everything you throw in your bin (not the recycling one) ends up in landfill. The most common methods of rubbish disposal is to bury it in a giant hole, or just make a big pile and leave it to do its thing. A lot of products are not biodegradable so will just sit there – forever. Landfills are responsible for emitting over ten dangerous gases including methane. The uncontrolled degradation of materials which release methane into the atmosphere has a the potential to trap 20 times more solar radiation than carbon dioxide and as a result, contributes largely to a rise in global temperatures. Landfills are lined with a composite liner but this is not a guarantee that the land around it will be protected. In fact it’s suggested that all landfills leak to some extent, sending toxic waste, cleaning chemicals, whatever else there may be in the bottom of a landfill site, out and into the soil. Liner technology is forever evolving, but outdated lining techniques used in the 20th century cannot be repaired (they’re buried under tons of rubbish) and as a result are causing an environmental catastrophe. Check out this website to learn more about the dangerous effects of landfill sites and what we could do to change this – Causes, Effects and Solutions of Landfills – Conserve Energy Future (conserve-energy-future.com).
Single Use Plastic
Back to the focus of this blog post, single use plastic often doesn’t make it to landfill. Around 32% annually finds it’s way into our vast oceans. It’s actually predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish! That is both astonishing and absolutely terrifying. Single use plastic accounts for about 150 million tons of the plastic we use worldwide annually. I’ve been for a few walks in my local area this week and have tried to count the amount of rubbish I walk past, an impossible task. Balloons, take away cups, bottles, wrappers, lids, even some broken toys and boxes! When you can’t be bothered to throw your empty bottle in a bin and instead throw it into a bush or on the grass as you walk past, do you ever stop and think about what happens to that plastic and the impact it has on the environment? Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it just gets smaller. Over time, heat makes the plastic item break up until it eventually turns into microplastics – 5 millimeters across and not really visible, they are everywhere. These microplastics that will never disappear will be absorbed into the ground, eaten by animals, enter the water systems and even end up inside you. If you eat fish, then you eat plastic. Plastic can build up inside an animals system causing potentially fatal blockages. So your seemingly innocent action because it’s too much effort to carry a bottle home to the recycling bin, has major consequences for the world around us. There is even research to suggest that a build up of microplastic in the human body can cause hormone imbalances, problems with fertility and cancer. This doesn’t just affect the planet, it affects YOU. Endocrine Disruptors (nih.gov).
So what are we doing about it? People are acting for change, but it won’t work unless we all work together, you and I, big corporations, governments. India is working to totally ban single use plastics by 2022 and many places here in the UK are working for change too. In 2020, the UK banned the use of plastic straws and we now have to pay for plastic carrier bags in shops. In fact in many shops now it’s more common to see paper bags being used in favour of plastic. Of course it’s not as simple as just banning single use plastic. If we did that, we would have to work to invest in other replacement items that also have an impact on the environment. It was found by the Danish Ministry of Environment and food, when considering water and land use and CO2 emissions, that you’d have to use a paper bag around 40-50 times for it’s environmental impact to be less than that of a plastic bag and a cotton bag around 20,000 times! And of course some people rely on items like plastic straws due to medical and physical conditions. We need to find a balance.
It’s not about an all out ban on plastic. It’s about change. Every single one of us making change. Yes I know it’s easy to use single use plastic, I’m not denying it. I’ll admit in the past I’ve put loads in the main bin instead of washing it and putting it in the recycling, it’s quicker and easier and that is what we have come to expect from this world – convenience and ease. But convenience and ease won’t make a change, it won’t save marine life, coral reefs, the soil or reduce toxic gases in the environment. What will make a change is becoming more aware. Next time you’re in a supermarket, don’t pick the bananas in pointless plastic packaging, take a reusable bag to put your fruit and veg in and to carry your shopping home instead of spending more money on plastic bags (that you know will just end up in that bag of bags you’ve got in the drawer next to the kitchen sink….). Next time you go to the coffee shop (and the pandemic allows), take a reusable coffee cup, get some money off your drink AND reduce plastic waste, what a bonus! Buy some reusable straws if you are able to use them and keep them in your bag for when you’re out and about. Use that water bottle you’ve got under the seat in your car and refill it, it’s free! Packed lunches? Use a Tupperware or glass container for your sandwiches or a reusable food wrapper instead of clingfilm, there are so many options out there if you do a quick online search. Pick up your rubbish after a picnic and carry it home. Instead of throwing all of the items from your next house clear out in the tip so they can all end up in landfill, have a look at other options for your items which still have lots of life left in them! There are plenty of places you can list your items for free and I guarantee you someone will come and rehome it, giving the item the chance to be reused and reducing the amount of really good, usable stuff in landfill! Yes it may all seem a pain in the arse to start with but I promise you, from experience, once you do these things regularly they will become part of your every day life and you will get the pleasure of knowing you aren’t contributing heavily to the global plastic catastrophe. If we can look past the attraction of convenience and all make just these tiny changes then imagine how different the world could look!
So next time you’re thinking about opening your car window and throwing your crisp packet or coke bottle onto the grass verge, please think about this blog. Think about the journey that plastic will make, from bottle to microplastic particles that will end up being consumed by another animal, close your window and take it home with you to dispose of responsibly. The amount of rubbish I see every single day is quite frankly disgusting. It’s lazy and there is no excuse for it. People claim that the pandemic has brought them closer to nature but the evidence suggests to me that all people are doing is using it as an opportunity to further expand the damage already done to the Earth. Think about it. Start by making one change today. And if you do, thank you for acting with me and being part of the change.
Get the kids involved!
As a quick side note to teachers and people with kids or young family members, it’s so vital that we get the youngest generations involved as soon as possible. The earlier they learn about this issue, the easier it will be for them to grow up knowing how to help the planet. For me, I bought two litter pickers and some gloves for my kids (5 & 4) and they have an absolute ball having competitions on who can collect the most rubbish. Now, every time we go out litter picking they are both confident enough to engage in conversation with people we encounter about what they are doing and why. And folks, if my 5 & 4 year old understand why we are doing what we are doing and how these simple steps can change the world, then I’m sure you can too.
There are plenty of resources for teaching kids (and grown-ups) about the issues discussed in this post, so many great books aimed at children but I would personally recommend ‘Protect the Planet’ and ‘What a Waste’ by vet and TV presenter, Jess French. They’re bright, colourful, affordable and engaging and perfect to have in the classroom or at home. Protect the Planet with Jess French (worldbookday.com)
Let’s start today.