Updated: Nov 3
Remember this brilliant Greenpeace advert from 2021? It really highlights our problem with plastic, especially since we produce more waste/person than most other countries (second only to the US). In fact, the sheer volume of plastic waste generated by the UK means we can't process it all at home. Over 60% of our plastic packaging is sent to other countries (who're paid to take our waste) for recycling. The rest is sent to landfill or incinerated, which does generate energy but also releases harmful pollutants and emissions into the environment.
The good news is that the government has just banned (as of October 1st) businesses from using plastic cutlery, food and drinks containers, balloon sticks, plates, bowls and trays. This is a brilliant start, but we still have a long way to go since plastic is such a huge part of our everyday lives.
We're making too much plastic
Plastic production is set to double by 2050, and plastic pollution is set to triple by 2060 (if no action is taken), yet in the UK only 12% of our waste is recycled (and that's only if it's clean [not contaminated with food etc], sorted [not mixed with other types of waste] and deemed 'recyclable' in the first place). This isn't solely a UK problem. Many countries struggle to recycle the volume of plastic consumed, so, like us, opt to put it in landfill, burn it, or send it abroad for recycling. The sheer volume of plastic waste entering other countries, however, often overwhelms their recycling capabilities. A lot of this unregulated plastic then ends up being burned or dumped illegally, where it can be blown by the wind, or washed by the rain into lakes, rivers and oceans.
The problem is so bad that an estimated lorry load of plastic enters the ocean every minute, and if we include rivers and lakes, this number rises to 2,000 lorry loads a day. This is terrible for biodiversity and marine ecosystems, which are predicted to have more plastic (by weight) than fish by 2050.
Plastic is forever
Plastic waste is estimated to take 20 - 500 years to decompose, and even then, it never fully disappears; it just breaks into smaller pieces. These micro-plastics, a huge amount have actually come from the wearing of car tyres, have infiltrated every environment possible - from the air, depths of the ocean, tops of the Pyrenees, and our own bodies. We don't know the long-term effects of these materials.
We can't recycle everything
Recycling all plastic isn't feasible. Heat-resistant (thermosetting) varieties (eg sockets, melamine kids' crockery, silicone cake moulds, etc) are deemed 'unrecyclable' because they can only be broken down with expensive chemical processes. Those that can be heated, melted and reshaped easily (thermoplastics) are recycled but not ubiquitously. These types of plastic (seven varieties, each marked with a recycling code 1-7 in a triangle of arrows) are recycled at the discretion of local councils, who base their decision upon the cost they can sell the recycled (flaked or pelleted) material, as well as what nearby recycling facilities can process.
To complicate the matter, the same piece of plastic can only be recycled around 2-3 times before its quality decreases and it can no longer be used. And each time it's recycled, additional virgin material is added to improve the quality. This keeps the plastic industry going - the industry that suggested we recycle in the first place.
As for the plastics marked 'biodegradable' (all lumped under recycle code '7'), a huge majority can actually only decompose if they're sent to a special factory, where the temperature and humidity is controlled; they won't breakdown in landfill. There are alternatives being produced, such as PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) which is biodegradable in all types of natural environments, but they are not widely used.
What can we do?
Firstly we need our government to take action to ban the production and use of single-use petroleum-based plastic. This is the only way we can end waste exports and reduce the amount of plastic being incinerated and sent to landfill. You can help push them to do this by signing this petition from Greenpeace. In the meantime, there are steps we can all take to cut plastic from our lives.
Aside the obvious use of refillable coffee cups and water bottles, which should not be underestimated, we can shop where possible from farmers' markets, where produce is free from plastic-wrapping, or online from veg-box delivery companies like riverford.co.uk. We can look for the shops that offer refills for dry foods, shampoo and laundry detergents etc, and search for plastic-free alternatives of everyday items.
At Green Up Britain we're working hard to be completely plastic-free too (we already reuse our plant pots, buy trees that are bare root (not in pots) as much as possible, make sure all our giveaways and products are plastic free, plus use paper and metal for drinks and packaging). In fact, we've just become an ally of Plastic Free Farnham. This is a group who're 'aiming to earn Farnham Plastic Free Community status under the Surfers Against Sewage scheme'.
As part of our pledge to be plastic-free we are committing to:
1. buying wooden and metal only tools when needed;
2. buying plastic-free tree guards from now on (we've had reusable plastic guards for a while, but will switch to cardboard ones instead);
3. make our own compost so that we don't have to buy plastic-wrapped bags of it anymore. (This is taking a while to make, annoyingly, but we'll get there.)
Please think about the amount of plastic in your life, because if we all work together, we make a big difference to the amount of waste we're generating in the UK. I don't want to live in a world with more plastic in the ocean than fish, I'm sure you don't too!
You can help us Green Up Britain via -
Donation - every penny helps restore nature around the UK
Volunteering - join our growing list of helpers
Sponsorship - we'll plant trees on behalf of your company