Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced since the mid twentieth century, shocking figures now show only 9% has been recycled, as revealed in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances (Geyer et al. 2017).
Plastic is an incredibly useful material; it can be long lasting and durable but how we use it has become increasingly problematic. In a throw away society many of us have never had to think twice about the plastic plates and boxes and cups and cutlery we use once and throw away; we have never had to think about the plastic containers that hold food, drink, cosmetics or cleaning fluids that we use for a matter of weeks or even a matter of hours and then proceed to throw away. But plastic ,among other waste, that’s thrown away doesn’t exactly just go ‘away’.
Plastic ‘waste’ is just as long lasting as any other variant of the material and it can take over 400 years for a single piece of plastic to degrade. As only a small proportion of plastics are incinerated, much of it ends up in landfill but as landfill sites leak into waterways, plastic pieces of all shapes and sizes end up in the oceans as their final sink. This brings us into the unknown age of microplastics (pieces less than 5mm in length) as plastics break down into smaller and smaller fragments over time. Microplastics can enter the digestive tract of small marine animals low down on the food chain building up in concentration in both the prey species feeding on them and their predators, ultimately ending up in many wild fish stocks targeted by fisheries. The long-term consequences on human health of consuming these fish are not yet known.
I was spurred on to write this blog after watching the eye opening 3-part documentary series ‘War on Plastic’ that aired on BBC One this year in June. In a truly disheartening moment, it became clear that there was another way in which particularly developed countries, such as the UK, were dealing with their plastic problem; by making it another countries problem via exportation. The UK has contributed a 4.31% share to the cumulative plastic exports made by the top 10 exporters from 1988-2016 (Brooks et al. 2018) and whilst China may have banned the vast majority plastic imports in 2017, shocking documentary footage showed aerial views of huge dumping sites of ‘recycled’ British plastic waste in Malaysia.
As the energy and financial costs of recycling become clearer, we can see that recycling just isn’t feasible against the intense and ever-increasing level of plastic production. We as a society must change our habits and make better choices; we must stop prioritising short term convenience over the health and longevity of the natural world.
So, what can we do?
I believe that a solution-based response must come from both individual actions alongside political and industrial policies. There must be greater clarity in all boroughs and counties of the UK concerning exactly which plastics can be recycled to ease the task of separation and contamination at recycling units. The low-density polyethylene that plastic bags and food wrapping is comprised of tends to fail under the thermal and mechanical stress of recycling hence rendering those items non-recyclable. Structurally weak polystyrene that makes up take-out containers are also non-recyclable; this information should be effectively communicated to households across the UK to prevent ‘wishful recycling’ as the wrong items end up in the wrong bins. It then falls to local government and recycling organisations to ensure waste is properly disposed of and not exported out of sight and out of mind.
However, it is also my belief that we can and we must move forward and away from the damage our single use culture perpetuates. Reusable coffee cups, bags, cutlery and containers eliminate the need of their one-time-use counterparts and subsequently ease the pressure on the recycling process. Petitioning and lobbying supermarkets and government can spark change as unnecessary packaging and non-recyclable materials are phased out and policy, such as the successful 5p plastic bag tax, is rolled in.
What may seem like an impossible problem of plastic waste is one we have created and one that is now in our capabilities to solve; as Oliver Waddington-Ball put it, ‘waste is just a resource in the wrong hands’.
Thanks for reading! ~ Layla Sklar 😊