Plastic in our environment is not litter. It is a pollutant from fast business serving society in the wrong way while outsourcing the cost to Mother Nature.
(My book notes aim to summarise the parts of the book that most attracted my attention, perhaps reworded or reorganised, and don’t necessarily reflect whether I agree or disagree with them. I’m very open to discussions as to whether I’ve missed or misunderstood anything).
Since the 1950s we’ve produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic. Most of it is still with us. By 2015, 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated, 79% in landfills/environment.
We produce 320 million metric tonnes of new plastic each year, almost all from oil. 8 million tonnes of this leak into oceans and waterways. By 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish, by weight.
Some plastics are truly useful, e.g. polymers used for heart valves and bulletproof vests. We should fight against avoidable useless plastic being forced upon us.
Stopping the environmental disaster will require radical action. To be sustainable we must leave the earth in the same or better shape for the next generation.
Plastic is a fossil fuel product. 90% of the plastic we consume is virgin plastic made of oil. 8% of the barrels of oil we extract from the earth becomes plastic.
The world’s most common plastic is polyethylene, which is used to make e.g. bottles and containers.
Plastic packing is increasingly used for food because it was cost-effective and made it easier for retailers and manufacturers to extend the shelf life of food. They argued it made food cheaper for everyone.
The age of plastic
The “shifting baseline” is a green movement concept whereby each generation treats the state of the world in their youth as the baseline to compare changes to. Over time this lowers society’s expectations and ambitions around protecting the environment.
The first plastic in the world was known as “Parkesine”, after it’s inventor Alexander Parks. It’s initial market was as a substitute for various “traditional” products previously obtained killing animals in the garment industry, such as the “tortoiseshell” obtained from hawksbill sea turtles. In this way it may have had an environmentally friendly impact - saving the hawksbills from extinction.
Following its invention, it was felt humans no longer had to be dictated to by nature.
The commercialization took off from the 1950s; within a decade 20 million plastic bags were being produced in the UK. The culture of make-do-or-mend went away. Marketers loved that consumers tended to buy more when it was wrapped in a bubble or tamper free pack.
A wake up call
The Blue Planet II documentary focussed the nation’s attention on plastic pollution. The social media and press outcry following it translated in a 25 Year Environment Plan from the UK government in 2018, which included a commitment to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years. A few businesses joined the effort, but not the big retailers beholden to shareholders.
Recycling can be effective - recycling plastic reduces energy and resource use, harmful emissions and reduces landfill. But in the UK there is confusion over what actually happens to the rubbish we put in our recycling bins.
The landfill tax is current £88.95 per tonne of general waste, and we have got better at recycling - about middle of the table vs the rest of Europe.
But many of the plastics that are sent to Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) have low recycling rates. One estimate is only 10-15% of mixed plastics are recycled. They also can’t keep pace with the amount of rubbish despite their expansion; we get through 5 million tonnes of plastic packaging a year in the UK vs having a capacity to recycle only 350,000 tonnes.
Waste giants need profit to satisfy their shareholders which is hard when the value of recyclate is low.
2 types of recycling:
- Closed-loop recycling: the old material is returned to an “as new” state ready to be made into a product of the same material. The material holds its value and can be repeatedly recycled. We don’t have enough of this.
- Open-loop recycling: the material is recycled into a different material, e.g. a plastic bottle processed to form recyclate flakes for use in fibre manufacturing.
Certain plastics aren’t rated highly on the global recycling market or are difficult to process. They’re often burned to produce electricity. Since 2008 legislation, incinerators are allowed to be described as “recovery facilities”. But once burned the plastic is lost, so it’s wasteful. Burning also releases emissions into the environment.
We export a lot of materials for recycling, 2.7 million tonnes to China/Hong Kong between 2012-2018. But in 2017 China clamped down and would only accept the cleanest materials. This led to UK local authorities reducing the types of materials they’d accept, whilst they look for other markets that don’t care about the quality of their waste imports.
Until 2016 the UK had a statutory plastic packaging recycling target of 57%. That’s since been reduced to 49%.
Understanding how plastic flows into and around the environment
The impact of the individual litter lout is often exaggerated, which lets the big culprits off.
Litter-louts do exist - men drop 3x as much litter as women, and 16-24 year olds drop twice as much as other age groups.
Education and surveillance have been proposed as the solution to littering. But studies suggest education isn’t the real issue. Rather, funding cuts to local government have reduced street cleaning and sweeping, leaving litter. Manufacturers of single-use packaging have not been tackled, despite the fact that the 500% increase in litter since the 1960s mirrors the growth of the packaging industry.
We should prioritise reducing the sources of plastic. It’s hard to deal with the 8-12 million tonnes of plastic waste once its already in the marine environment, 80% of which originates from the land, e.g. from overflowing bins.
One trash enters the ocean it settles into islands. There’s a huge whirlpool of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), coverung 600,000 square miles of ocean, bigger than France or Texas. It weighs 79,000 tonnes, has 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish, almost all plastic. Some from 40 years ago has been found.
In water, macro plastics are tossed up against abrasive objects and broken down by UV rays until they become microplastics, a great risk to marine life.
Now we wear clothes made from synthetic man-made fibres, washing releases plastic microfibres into the environment - potentially 700k+ per machine wash.
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) like DDT can adhere to microplastics. On land we have tried to phase POPs out, but now they can enter the food chain through via microplastics.
The average European seafood eater eats an estimated 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year. 83% of drinking water samples are contaminated. They’ve been found in salt, beer and honey.
A 4 cent charge on carrier bags that was introduced in Greece in 2018 caused usage to drop by 80% in the first month.
Our plastic footprint
Most of the 8 million pieces of waste that enter the world’s marine environment every day are made of plastic. 70% of the rubbish sinks to the seabed, 15% drifts upwards in the water, and 15% is deposited on shores.
British household consumption is the “main engine of growth for the UK economy”, representing 63% of GDP. But everything we consume depletes the earth’s resources.
Mathis Wackernagel created a model to account for “ecological footprinting”. Calculations showed that Western Europe consumers were using up resources faster than the planet could replenish them. If everyone consumed at UK rates we would need 3 planets worth of resources.
The annual Earth Overshoot Day occurs on the day that we exceed the earth’s capacity to regenerate life-sustaining resources. In 2017 it was on 2nd August. Each year it is a few days earlier.
The UK’s plastic footprint is 139-140kg per person per year - 3x the consumption rate in 1980.
We’re 5th in the EU in terms of consumption single-use plastics. We’d be top 2 if it wasn’t for the smoking ban, cigarette advertising regulations and education reducing the number of smokers - cigarette butts contain plastic.
67% of discarded plastic is packaging. ~40% of plastic in bins could be recycled, but the real rate is lower.
The toy industry is the most plastic-intensive, using 40 tonnes of plastic for every $1 million revenue.
Corporations often do not wish to share plastic consumption numbers. It’s important that they do, not to name and shame, but rather to help understand what we need to do next.
Bans on certain plastic items (e.g. plastic straws) can be helpful, but tackle only that 1 item. Something else will take its place unless we change the culture and reduce the attractiveness of disposable products.
A toolbox to reduce your plastic footprint
The Mobius Loop has been adopted as an internationally recognised symbol of recycling, often alongside the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”.
But it was harder to recycle than we thought. The recycling symbol can be found on products like single-used coffee-cups where fewer than 0.1% are actually successfully recycled. A local authority accepting an item doesn’t mean it’ll actually be recycled.
The mobius strip with inverted colours (white on black) means the item was made with recycled material and can be recycled again, but this is rare
Industry introduced a more nuanced, label system. Items are either:
- Widely recycled: collected by at least 65% of councils.
- Check local recycling: collected by 15-65% of councils
- Not currently recycled: collected by <15% of councils.
Flat arrows with a number 1-7 tell you what type of polymer is in the product, not whether it’s recyclable.
Globally 15% of plastic waste is recycled, but only 5% of that is turned into a recycled object or material.
We must add more “R” strategies to the toolbox:
Keep a diary of every single piece of plastic that enters your life for 4 weeks (or at least 2). Include plastic both inside and outside the home.
The author provides an example grid containg columns for source, whether it’s avoidable, whether it’s single-use, where it ends up, whether you wanted it, its features and more.
It’s likely that a couple would record between 300-1000 items, much more for larger families.
Telling someone they need to reduce plastic packaging unhelpful, in the same way that just telling someone to stop smoking or eat less to lose weight is.
The plastic diary is similar to a food diary, and those have been shown effective for weight loss.
- Single use plastics: Separate the behaviour from the product. Instead of a single-use takeaway coffee cup, sit down and drink it in the cafe from a china cup
- Fizzy drinks: Half of the 35 million plastic bottles bought in the UK each day aren’t recycled. Consider limiting intake for health reasons. By canned drinks if you want some.
- Plastic straws: Straws are rarely actually necessary at all.
- Online shopping: Sometimes you can select a no bag option. Others rely on recycling carrier bags. Ticking Amazon’s “Frustration Free” packaging option will lower the plastic they send you. More than150 people per day in Britain stab themselves trying to open packaged products. Treating packaging injuries from e.g. moulded vacuum-sealed plastic packaging film costs the NHS £11 million a year.
- Buy less stuff.
- Declutter: The average American home contains more than 300,000 items.
- Takeaway and fast-food packaging. Online services sometimes let you opt-out of receiving single-use plastic items like cutlery. They may let you bring your own containers.
Supermarkets distribute 800k tonnes of plastic packaging a year.
- Try local greengrocers and butchers if possible, many let you use your own containers.
- Buy loose veg.
- Otherwise there’s often paper bags near the mushrooms you can use instead of the plastic ones.
- Avoid anything wrapped in thin plastic film, it’s recycling rate is 3%.
- Choose simple foods - they tend to have less complex packaging.
- Buy in bulk.
- Grow your own food if you can - you only need a little space to grow e.g. salad leaves or strawberries.
- Cut down on snacks (this may also have health benefits). Or some ethical snack brands e.g. Divine Chocolate deliberately don’t use plastic. Most others use polypropylene packaging.
- Cook from scratch.
- Eat less meat.
- Buy from the fish, bakery and butchery counters, taking your own containers.
- Consider changing which store you go to to one that’s proactive in the anti-plastic fight.
Some stores now opened in the UK where you can bulk-buy and refill.
Replace things at the right time. Everything has a break-even point where the amount of resources that went into making it are offset by how often it’s used. It doesn’t make sense to throw away plastic you have that can still be used.
Reuse, refill or recycle empty bottles and containers.
The online plastic-free community can advise further.
- Switch to glass milk bottles.
- Buy a SodaStream if you drink fizzy drinks.
- Switch to glass containers. 80% of glass is recycled. It’s non toxic, but not always good for bathroom products.
- Use Tupperware.
- Switch to laundry soap nuts.
- Use non-plastic toothbrushes (e.g. bamboo).
- Refuse microbeads! In the UK rinse-off products containing microbeads were banned in 2018, so only older products should have them. “Leave-on” products e.g. sun creams, lipsticks, moisturisers may still contain microplastics.
- Switch to soap bars.
- The “Go naked!” range in Lush is plastic-free.
- Use cloth nappies. Over time they’re cheaper than disposables and “nappy libraries” may help with the cost. Even biodegradable disposables will last 100s of years in landfill.
- Switch to cardboard toys - Nintendo’s Labo range is popular.
The 2015 5p levy on plastic bags should increase our confidence to refuse plastic in other forms.
- Refuse receipts (they’re coated in a plastic additive), plastic bags, wrapping or single-use cutlery where possible.
- Avoid badly designed products that end up in landfill, e.g. standup pouches with a valve and disposable toothbrushes with batteries.
- Write letters or tweet at companies with particularly poor examples of packaging. If they have a plastic reduction policy point out the discrepancy.
- Register with the Mail Preference Service to reduce unsolicited mail often wrapped in plastic or on plasticised paper.
- Use the law - the Packaging Essential Requirements Regulations bans packaging beyond what’s needed for safety, hygiene and acceptance for the product by the consumer. Report infractions to the local Trading Standards Officer. A sample letter is available from Jo Swinson. Throwing plastic plastic waste from your car is a finable offence.
Some protest groups have unwrapped their shopping in-store to highlight the issue. If you do this: be sure to pay for all the goods, pick up the packaging afterwards, take reusable containers to transfer products into and be aware of e.g. littering laws.
When you buy something involving plastic, consider whether the packaging can be re-used. Clear plastic products are an obvious case that can.
- Reuse a water-bottle several times. The toxic chemicals people worry about are not found in PET, which is 99.9% of bottled water.
- Don’t assume that anything is dishwasher safer.
- Plastic ready-meal tubs, trays and pots are generally not worth recycling as they’re low quality - reuse them.
- Reuse cleaning product sprays and trigger nozzles as long as they don’t contain dangerous ingredients. Fill with your own cleaner e.g. white wine vinegar.
- Take reusable cutlery wherever you go.
- Plastic toys are made to last, don’t dump them. Although you may need to be careful about certain old toys created before prior to plastic safety legislation.
Some brands are getting worse - e.g. the big feminine care brands have switched from cardboard to plastic tampon applicators. Consider switching to reusable menstruation products like the Mooncup.
A report found that 29% of millennials said they don’t use refillable water bottles because they are too heavy. A generation before, mandatory deposit schemes for bottles and refillable containers were common. Soft drink manufacturers such as Coca Coal and Pepsi successfully lobbied against them.
- Get a refillable coffee cup. The 2.5 billion disposable ones used in the UK each year are very difficult to recycle as they’re infused with plastic. Only 1 in 400 is recycled.
- Get a refillable water bottle.
- Refill.org.uk will show you places that are happy to refill your bottle, although in practice most restaurants and cafes will do so.
- UK tap water has the highest treatment standards in the world, higher than bottled water, but if you still don’t like it then you can refill from a filter jug like a Brita or use a refillable bottle that comes with a filter (e.g. Bobble).
- Get a juicer if you drink a lot of fruit juice.
- Buying in bulk or getting refills for re-usable containers is preferable to just choosing a brand that uses biocompostable plastic. It may also save you money. This works well for household cleaning products, laundry products and store-cupboard staples like grains, flour, oils , rice, flour, pasta, soup mixes, beans, cereals, nut butters, sugars, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, snacks and treats, loose tea and coffee, herbs, spices, salts and peppercorns.
- Find your nearest health food or natural store that provides a refill service.
- Or use concentrated forms of household cleaning products such as soaps, laundry liquids, detergents. These come as a small sachet that you mix with water and put in a reusable cleaning bottle. Spolsh.com sells some.
- Some new businesses only stock unpackaged goods - e.g. independent health food and organic shops. Some online retailers are beginning to do this, e.g. Zero Waste Club.
We must rethink some of our habits. That includes when outside of our homes or around special occasions.
Look out for hidden plastics: wet wipes, coffee cups, chewing gum, most aluminium cans, teabags.
- Put 2 small bins in your bathroom, one for recyclables (loo roll tubes, empty bottles and tubs etc.), the other for non-recyclables (wipes and cotton buds, contact lenses etc.)
- Only flush toilet paper.
- Don’t use wet wipes. They contain plastic polymers.
- Use a traditional flannel.
- Buy fully compostable teabags (most mainstream ones use a plastic sealant, polypropylene).
- Check garment labels, and opt for natural fibres like wool, cotton, hemp and linen to avoid microplastics being released when washed.
- Lobby the airlines to reduce plastic.
- Use a “bucket and spade library” when on holiday.
- Throw plastic-free parties.
- Don’t use plastic cups, throwaway glasses, “paper” plates and cups. They’re are usually coated in plastic.
- Only use paper straws
- If you must use balloons, make sure to never release them into the sky, pop them when done - even if they’re “biodegradable”.
- Replace glitter with “Eco glitter”.
- Use sustainable gift wrap - most papers are coated in plastic.
- Switch to Easter eggs packaged in cardboard or tins.
- Support plastic-free festivals, sports matches, and other entertainment.
Unlike the rest of the UK, Wales is a recycling success story. It went from recycling 5% of waste 20 years ago to be on target to achieve 70% by 2025.
Targets and goals are important. Wales established statutory targets and most LAs provided kerbside recycling docks where residents sort they recycling at home into boxes based on type and then put into the relevant dock.
Using one “mixed” recycling bag instead is worse because you end up with lower quality recyclate, which is harder to sell into the global market. The UK’s recyclate is dropping in quality.
Higher quality recyclate fetches higher prices and more markets will buy it. Whilst it’s more arduous to sort it at home, this should eventually translate into lowered council tax and better public services.
- Ask your local authority to change to a kerbside sort collection system.
- Make sure everything you recycle is clean, dry and not contaminated with anything you’re unsure about.
- Rinse plastics.
- Don’t put one plastic inside another plastic container.
- Put the lids on bottles. They’re easy to separate at a MRF and less likely to escape into the environment if on.
- There’s no need to peel labels off plastics unless you’re instructed to.
- If it’s a clear plastic bottle recycle it. If you’re out then bring the bottle home to recycle rather than putting it in a public bin that doesn’t do recycling.
- Don’t put anything with a battery or VHS tapes in recycling.
- Don’t recycle moulded plastic that’s of an uncertain polymer, or those marked #3.
- Use any recycling opportunities that companies and brands offer, e.g. Ocado pays 5p for each plastic bag you return. ASDA, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, the Co-op and Waitrose have collection points for bag. Tetra Park has collection points in most towns.
- Buy recycled products - although this is hard as < 2% of items on the market contain plastic waste.
- Visit the TerraCycle website who can recycle a vast array of products no-one else can, although it can be expensive.
It’s worth supporting bigger changes that will reduce plastic usage more than your own personal usage can. We need to be imaginiative.
- Almost no manufacturers or retailers pay the true cost of cleaning up their cheap oil-based packaging. Demand a report like the Stern Review which reviewed the cost of climate change.
- Introduce a bottle deposit system. The collection rate of plastic bottles in Norway and Sweden is 97% It’s been announced that England will do this, but no dates have been set.
- Once used, chewing gum is flexible plastic. “Gumdrops” are plastic bins that can take 500 pieces of used gum. Once they’re full the whole bin is collected and processed as one piece of plastic. One full bin makes 3 new bins.
- Ellen MacArthur has produced a blueprint for transformation called the “New Plastics Economy”, which at least 40 big brands have signed up to.
- Some cafes and restaurants have compost collection schemes.-
- Bioplastics that biodegrade in the earth have been developed, made of cellulose instead of hydrocarbons. We should keep researching this tech, but it may not end up as effective as hoped.
- They look like normal plastics so often end up in standard recycling.
- There isn’t enough oxygen in a landfill site for them to biodegrade.
- In the UK it’s very rare that the temperature is high enough in people’s compost piles to start the breakdown process.
- Making products made of plastic waste seem desirable might transform our relationship with it. In fashion, it’s possible to use yarn made from recovered plastics. Adidas have produced a collection of trainers made from ocean plastic.
Be an activist
There is a real chance we can end the plastic age.
- All 193 UN member states have signed a resolution to eliminate plastic in the sea.
- Every UK public body has a plastic reduction target.
Activists were critical to creating this legislation. There are many ways to get involved.
In 2015, the Dutch government was successfully sued by citizens for knowingly contributing towards a breach of the target for global warming. For the first time, a court ordered the state to protect its citizens from climate change.
- Look for campaigns that collect data on single-use plastic and toxins in the oceans, or those creating an online community of change-makers allied with global ambassadors. One group the author likes is A Plastic Planet
- Don’t underestimate petitions - 10 billion fewer plastic teabags per year exist because of one person’s petition.
- Sign the OceanWise pledge
- Talk to everyone you meet in local shops and businesses.
- Get involved in the Plastic Free Communities programme.
Consider matching your activism to your personality. The Happy Hero book has a profiling section to help. There are many opportunities to help, from crafting a bag from recycled fabric though to adrenaline filled expeditions.