Plastic washed up on Aberlady Bay, Midlothian

I bang on about my frustration with plastic all the time. It’s great but it’s also absolutely awful, so today let’s talk about why plastic is so bad.

Look around right now. How many items can you spot that contain plastic? It’s an incredibly versatile material, which is precisely how it found it’s way into our homes and lives. There are things I love that are made from plastic; my record player and records being one big thing, the cases video games come in, the Playstation itself, my camera, the keys I’m typing on right now.

Plastic makes our lives easier, especially now that it’s everywhere. While it might make life easier for us, it kind of isn’t at the same time because it’s bad for the environment and it’s bad for us. “How can my phone be so bad for the environment?” you might wonder, so let’s explore some of the reasons why plastic is so bad.

Side note: read Blood & Earth by Kevin Bales to discover other reasons why technology can be bad for the environment and people.

 

Single-use plastic pollution

Approximately 50% of plastics are made into a single-use item. What?

Single-use plastic is my biggest plastic-based frustration (it’s always fun to rate and categorise your frustrations). I’m sure Daz is beginning to dread going to the supermarket with me because it always involves a lot of “this doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic!” “Why is this non-recyclable plastic?!” “I’m writing Tesco an angry email when I get home.” Side note; I did and their response about their use of non-recyclable packaging was disappointing. They’re “working hard to make sure even more of our packaging is recyclable.”

There are few things we honestly need to use once and throw away. In fact, now that I’m trying to think about something that truly needs to be single-use, I can’t think of anything. Maybe something surgical? There is sterilising equipment, though, so? If you think of anything, I want to hear about it.

I’m not sure how we ended up putting our convenience over the well-being of ourselves, wildlife, and the planet. But it happened, and we can stop it. We don’t need single-use plastic bags. We don’t need single-use straws; if you want a straw, get a reusable glass, bamboo, or stainless steel one. We don’t need food to come in plastic containers which are non-recyclable. We very rarely need water in plastic bottles. Sure, sometimes you forget your travel bottle but we certainly don’t need to be consuming it in the quantities that we are. In 2015, Americans brought over 88 billion half-litre bottles of water. In a year. And that’s one country.

The problem with single-use plastic is that 1) it’s resource intensive to manufacture (we’ll talk about that in a minute) and 2) it’s very polluting.

Have you heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? I know, you probably wish you hadn’t. This is where some of our rubbish ends up, and sadly it isn’t the only garbage patch. I recently heard about a really interesting campaign between LAD Bible (yes, that LAD Bible) and Plastic Oceans Foundation. Their theory was that if they can get the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to be accepted by the UN as a country (called Trash Isles) then something will have to be done about the pollution. It’s unlikely to be accepted as a country but a brilliant way to get people talking about the issue of plastic pollution.

It doesn’t end with plastic floating around our oceans. It’s washing up on beautiful beaches and uninhabited islands. It’s affecting and killing marine animals in awful ways. Turtles inhale straws. They’re trapped, entangled, or choked by it. They eat it because they think it’s food and it blocks their digestive systems and kills them.

Sadly, that isn’t the end of the plastic pollution story either. Just when we thought we’d got rid of it, it comes back to haunt us like yet another Fast & Furious movie. If we eat animals that have consumed microplastics, we’re also eating plastic. As we discussed in my blog post about plastic in our drinking water, plastic doesn’t fully break down and ends up in our tap water. Even if you don’t eat seafood, you’re consuming plastic straight out the tap.

 

Resource-intensive to produce

We know that fossil fuels are not renewable sources of energy. If we want to talk about reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, we need to talk about plastic too.

Synthetic plastics can be made from fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, or natural gas. 4% of the world’s oil and gas is used as feedstock for plastic, and an extra 3 – 4% is needed to produce the energy to make it into plastic.

As well as using up to 8% of the world’s oil and gas, the extraction of these resources can be incredibly damaging to the environment. Most people remember the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. And, maybe one or two big oil spills make the news every year but that doesn’t mean they’re the only oil spills. They’re going on all the time, all over the world; we just don’t hear about all of them. They’re incredibly damaging to the environment and the effects are long-lasting.

As well as taking up non-renewable resources, plastic requires a lot of water to make. It takes 24 gallons of water to make one pound of plastic. Yes, there are other materials which require much more water to produce. Shouldn’t we be doing our best to reduce the amount of water we’re wasting wherever we can by skipping plastic as much as possible?

 

It doesn’t degrade

One of the reasons plastic is so bad is because it does not degrade. Plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of itself, so it never really goes away. As evidenced by it ending up in 83% of the world’s tap water, delicious.

There is no straightforward answer to “how long does it take plastic to fully decompose?” Estimates range from 10 – 1000s of years, depending on what it is. But some scientists fear plastic never fully degrades, it just keeps breaking down into smaller pieces of itself. Maybe a plastic bag appears to have degraded after 10s of years but it doesn’t mean it’s actually gone. It will have broken down into microplastics (plastic smaller than 5mm) and could end up anywhere.

 

It doesn’t all get recycled

Ok, so perhaps you’re having similar thoughts to me a couple of years back right now; “if I’m separating my rubbish and recycling so much plastic, why is it causing such a big pollution problem?” That makes sense, right? We’re constantly told to recycle plastic so why is plastic pollution such a big deal?

  1. Not everyone recycles. Over the past month or so, when people have asked me about what I’m studying, I’ve ended up in conversations about how we’re destroying the planet. Sometimes we get to talking about rubbish and pollution, and I’m surprised that not everyone recycles. To me that seems so alien, but some people just don’t do it.
  2. Not all plastic that you recycle gets recycled. There are so many different kinds of plastic that it’s very labour intensive to separate them. When you add that to having to remove wrappers and stickers, sometimes companies can’t be bothered and it ends up in landfill. While you might have done your part for the environment, you might be being let down further down the chain.

When plastic actually does get recycled it can end up being shipped all over the world before becoming something new. That’s hardly a surprise given that I could sit here in my dressing gown right now and order something from the other side of the world in the click of a few buttons. In a week or two, I’ll end up missing the postie and have to collect it from the sweltering post office. That parcel will have travelled thousands of miles to reach me and I won’t bat an eyelid at that. If we’re being very pernickety, we’d say it’s not great that it gets shipped everywhere; adding more carbon dioxide to the planet. On the other hand, it’s great that it can be recycled.

 

Chemicals that damage our health  

It’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for wildlife, and hey, plastic is bad for us too. Some of the chemicals in plastic can be absorbed by our bodies and impact our hormones and cause health issues. It’s hard to nail down exactly which chemicals in plastics are causing which issues. However, researchers suspect the chemicals in plastics can cause a number of issues.

 

What’s the solution?

I don’t know what the solution is. Plastic is so versatile and heavily ingrained in our lifestyles; it’s hard to imagine a world without it. We don’t have to know what the end solution is to make a difference, though. We can begin by quitting single-use plastic, reducing our plastic consumption as much as possible, recycling plastic and hoping it is actually being recycled, supporting companies that use recycled plastic packaging, and using alternative materials.

Be careful with biodegradable plastics because it’s not as simple as you think. It’s easy to think all you need to do is throw it away and it will biodegrade by itself. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Certain conditions are needed for biodegradable plastic to degrade, and those conditions don’t exist in landfill sites. If they do, the plastic will end up releasing methane, which isn’t great for the environment either.

I am pretty cynical in that I don’t expect my current government to live up to my expectations of what they should be doing in regards to the environment. (Hey, they don’t live up to our expectations for the NHS so…) While I believe it’s equally up to you and me, the private sector, and our governments to make a change, I think the public have to force it in countries where the environment isn’t a priority.

What does that mean? It sounds like a lot of legwork, right? Maybe it is. And let’s be honest, we’re all so busy that we need things to be made easier for us. So, that’s where I can help. Below, I’ve got a list of a few plastic-free alternatives and some blogs I’ve found really helpful for reducing my plastic consumption.

You don’t have to make all these changes overnight. Do whatever works best for you and your life; small changes are better than no changes.

 

Plastic-free alternatives

When I first decided to reduce my plastic consumption I felt overwhelmed. So many things contain plastic, how do I start to replace those things? And what should I start with? I don’t suggest throwing everything plastic out at once; start slowly and replace things when they break.

The links below are either things I’ve used and recommend, or things I am looking to buy when I replace something.

  • Wooden toothbrushes look so much cooler than plastic toothbrushes
  • Travel mugs and water bottles instead of plastic bottles and takeaway cups
  • Wooden cutlery instead of plastic cutlery
  • Instead of disposal straws, try out glass, stainless steel, or wood
  • Metal or glass tupperware instead of plastic
  • Fabric produce bags for buying loose produce
  • Quit shaving your legs with plastic, and get a snazzy safety razor
  • Switch to wooden dish brushes
  • Avoid plastic microbeads in cosmetics – they have been banned in the UK for “rinse off” cosmetics like toothpaste and face scrub, but not “leave-on” products like makeup or sunscreen, which seems odd because that’s going to get washed off too…

 

Extra reading

If you want to read up some more, here are a few things I found really interesting while researching this blog post & things I’ve read recently

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Glass of water - are you drinking plastic right now?

Got a cuppa in your hand right now? There’s a good chance you might be drinking plastic as it’s estimated that 83% of the world’s tap water is contaminated by plastic fibres.

You have probably seen heart-breaking stories on Facebook about the dangers of plastic to marine wildlife. It doesn’t stop with them and our oceans; plastic is so polluting and invasive that studies have found it in our tap water.

A study by Orb Media and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health tested tap water around the globe and found the following contamination levels:

  • Worldwide: 83%
  • USA: 94%
  • Europe: 72%
  • Jakarta, Indonesia: 76%
  • New Delhi, India: 82%
  • Lebanon, Beirut: 94%
  • Kampala, Uganda: 81%
  • Quito, Ecuador: 75%

Those are some startling figures; 83% of the world’s tap water is contaminated with plastic.

The figures are worrying, so I wanted to do a bit of research into why drinking plastic is bad for us (aside from the ew factor), how it gets there, and if there’s anything we can do about it. To my surprise, I found that this wasn’t new news at all; we’ve been drinking plastic for years.

Before we get started I want make it clear that plastic pollution is a complex problem that extends beyond our drinking water. This blog post is to introduce and give an overview of the issues surrounding plastic in our tap water. If you want to learn more, I’ve included journal articles and news stories throughout the post. (Note that unless you are a university student or have subscriptions to journals you may not be able to access all the journal articles – that’s why I’m including news stories where I can too.)

 

Why are we drinking plastic? / What is microplastic?

Before we can look at the problems associated with microplastics in our tap water and how we can stop it, we need to address what they are and how they end up in our glasses.

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic. While there is some debate over size, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration classify microplastics as being small than 5mm. This means microbeads are also considered microplastics.

There are two types of microplastic:

  • Primary microplastics; these are plastics which have been manufactured to be microplastics. Think microbeands in facial scrubs and toothpaste, and clothing made from plastic.
  • Secondary microplastics; plastic is not biodegradable, it breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, called secondary microplastics. This is why reducing our reliance on plastics is so important.

Fibres from our clothes are also a big contributor to the problem. A few examples of plastic-based fabrics include PVC, acrylic, polyester, and polycotton; you’re probably wearing some of those now. The problem with these types of clothing is that microfibres can be released into the environment via your washing machine. A study by Browne et al., (2011) suggested that one garment could release more than 1,900 fibres per wash. Napper and Thompson (2016) estimated that on a typical 6kg load of washing acrylic garments could release over 700,000 fibres, polyester 496,030, and poly-cotton 137,951 fibres. All of that, from everyone’s house, results in a lot of plastic fibres in our water. (Here’s a link to a news story about these figures if you can’t read the journal articles.)

So do how they get from our washing machine, sinks, and showers into our tap water? Waste water leaves our houses and travels to waste water treatment plants. After the water is treated, it is discharged BUT treatment does not remove microfibres. Currently, there is no filtration in our drinking water systems that will remove all plastic microfibres.

Due to the size of microfibres, they could also be transported by the wind and blown into our water supplies. Dan Morrison, the leader of the Orb Media investigation, told Sky news, “it could be that they are fibres from synthetic clothes and that the friction of daily life sends them into the air and they are then deposited into reservoirs, lakes and streams that feed cities as tap water.”

Here we come across another issue, which is just as important. Plastic end that ends up in lakes and oceans is eaten by fish and other marine life, which introduces it into our food chain. Not only are we drinking plastic, we’re eating plastic too.

 

What’s the problem with drinking plastic?

That heading right there probably sparked a reaction in you that sounded something like, “why would anyone want to drink plastic?” Exactly. Water is something most of us associate with being pure, having bits of plastic floating around in it sounds anything but.

Currently, there are no published “safe” levels of plastic microfibres in drinking water. Unfortunately, research is a long way off fully understanding the impact these fibres have on humans. Though, we can probably all safely say that given the choice we would rather not drink plastic.

Plastics have been found to leach a number of toxic chemicals and carcinogens (this is another post for another day). One of the most talked about examples, which you may have heard of, is bisphenol-A (BPA). It is found in food containers, the linings of tin cans, water bottles, and more. The problem? It’s been found to leach into food, and has been linked to a number of health issues, including increased blood pressure and an increased risk of cancer. Before you replace all your plastic with BPA free plastic be aware that BPA-free versions are not necessarily safer. Consider metal drinks and food containers and avoiding tinned food if you can.

In marine research, numerous studies have found that bacteria can colonise microplastics (Harrison et al., 2014). In addition to that, microplastics absorb and release chemicals into marine life (Koelmans, 2015). The obvious way this affects humans is that when we eat seafood, we also ingest those chemicals. This is called bioaccumulation, and means that those at the top of the food chain (humans, wolves, bears, tigers, sharks, etc.) have the most concentrated levels of toxins. Delicious.

I have spent some time trying to find out if there are any published studies on bacteria colonising on microplastics in our tap water but haven’t found anything yet. I don’t fully understand if that’s because it’s very unlikely to happen so is low priority or if it’s a work in progress and hasn’t been published yet. In theory, our tap water should be clean and free of bacteria. But what about parts of the world where it isn’t as clean? Is it possible that microplastics are contributing to bacterial growth? I’m not sure, it’s just a thought. If anyone has seen research about this or can weigh in, please do in the comments.

 

How can we stop drinking plastic?

Plastic pollution is a blight on our entire planet, not just our tap water. It’s not about ensuring we can drink a glass of water or a cup of coffee that’s free of plastic; this is about tidying up the mess we made of our planet (that isn’t purely ours to fudge up).

It is easy to say “ban all plastic now” but that’s more complex than trying to explain Game of Thrones to a friend whose never seen it. To clean up the mess we made we are going to have to compromise and make sacrifices. To live our lives the way we do currently, we require something like plastic; that’s how it’s become so darned intrusive. I am not a material scientist, so I’m not going to say “there are alternatives to every type of plastic we use.” However, it’s clear that looking into alternatives is useful.

 

Governments

One issue with the prevalence of plastic is to do with consumerism and capitalism. Capitalism does not lend itself well to caring about the environment. It’s all about sell, sell, sell, and we buy, buy, buy. This is a whole other blog post for another time when I’ve learned a bit more about it. You get the gist though; we need a huge societal shift that puts pressure on companies and politicians to act responsibly. That sounds unlikely right? Governments aren’t exactly renowned for listening to the people. If we want to quit drinking plastic and clear up the oceans, we all need to make changes and do our bit, however small or large.

This means putting pressure on companies we buy from and our politicians to spur change. If you are up for it, take time to write to companies you like and ask them to make a change. Write to your MP and / or local Green Party Councillor. Where I used to live, my local Green MP was always interested so you’re likely to hear back positively from them. 

 

Reducing our use of plastic

Since plastic doesn’t biodegrade, one of the best things we can do is to significantly reduce our use of plastics. Yes, it is daunting when you first begin considering how to stop using plastic. Especially as pretty much everything seems to come wrapped up in it.

Your efforts are personal to you and your circumstances. Which means you don’t have to go in straight at the deep end and quit plastic 100% right now. Any effort and progress you make is worth it. Here are a few things you can do review & reduce your use of plastic:

  • Seriously take note of the plastic you’re recycling (or can’t recycle): what is the plastic from? Can you buy the same item without plastic? If it’s not recyclable, consider writing to the company and asking them why they’re using non-recyclable packaging. Is there any clearly unnecessary plastic in your recycling bin?
  • Quit using one-use plastics, such as cutlery, straws, cups or plastic bags. Get yourself a water bottle, reusable mug, and metal / wooden cutlery for eating on the go.
  • Switch to wooden toothbrushes.
  • Only wash your clothes when they need to be washed. No one likes doing laundry anyway.
  • Avoid using cosmetics with microbeads in them – if you like a particular product, try emailing the company and asking them to remove microbeads in favour of natural alternatives.
  • Start reading the Going Zero Waste blogThis blog has been a bit of a bible for me since starting my zero waste journey earlier this year. Kathryn has covered so many topics you’ll have questions about and in a way that doesn’t feel daunting. I am far from zero waste but I’m making progress and it feels doable when I read her advice.

This is a topic I want to cover in more detail so keep an eye out for a more detailed guide on reducing our use of plastic.

 

Bottled or filtered water

Bottled water is not a solution to the problem. Firstly, the study by Orb found some microfibres in some samples of bottled water in the US. Secondly, bottled water comes in plastic bottles which perpetuates the problem.

You might consider getting a filtration system for your kitchen, though remember that as mentioned earlier there isn’t a filtration system that will remove all microplastics and nanoparticles.

 

Fabric & clothing

More research needs to be carried out into microfibre shed from our clothing. Once we fully understand the parameters that cause more or less shedding, we can begin to manufacture clothing which sheds as little as possible, and washing machines that cause as little shedding as possible. Washing machine filters are also being developed to prevent microfibres ending up in the environment.

In terms of what you can do now, consider buying clothes made from entirely natural material.

 

Packaging materials

As consumers we have power to encourage companies using non-recyclable packaging to change. If you come across plastic packaging which is non-recyclable, write to the company and ask them why they aren’t using a recyclable option. Additionally, if you order online consider asking the seller to use non-plastic packaging. I have read about bloggers doing this and they’ve found that most of the time the sellers will try their hardest and avoid plastics.

 

You might have finished this article feeling a bit overwhelmed; that’s how I felt when I started researching it. Drinking plastic sounds pretty horrible and unfortunately it isn’t going to disappear from our water supply overnight. The most useful things you can do is educating yourself on reducing the amount of plastic you bring into your home and send out to the kerb, and writing to companies and politicians.

What are your thoughts on drinking plastic? (And did you enjoy this kind of post?)

(Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash)

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