Just stop plastic!
Anne MacLennan from Skye Climate action newsletter June 2023
Recycling produces microplastic pollution
Microplastics are tiny fragments ranging in size from from one micron (a thousandth of a millimetre) to 5 millimetres. A recent investigation of a state-of-the-art plastic recycling facility in the UK sampled the waste water and estimated up to 75 billion plastic particles per cubic metre were being released. That was about 6% of the plastic processed and after filters were fitted. The filters had stopped the larger microplastics, but allowed the tiny ones through – the ones that are consumed by many different organisms, including humans.
They also found high levels of microplastics in the surrounding air – again, mainly the tiny bits. Primary microplastics are manufactured intentionally. Secondary microplastics are broken down from larger microplastics or macroplastics. Here it was due to the recycling process itself, where the incoming plastic is washed, ground down and made into pellets. As the main author said, “It highlights how drastically we need to reduce our plastic consumption and production.”
More than 13,000 different chemicals are thought to be involved in the production of plastics to give them their very varied properties. Permitted chemicals in new plastic production are regulated for some uses such as food packaging, and baby items, but not in recycled plastic. Plastics readily absorb substances in contact with them: pesticides, cleaning agents – anything that might be stored in plastic. But the recycling process doesn’t remove these chemicals and mixing plastic items from many different uses can even increase the contamination, which is then transferred into recycled products depending on the types of plastic involved. This is worrying scientists and regulators as we move to a circular economy.
Plastic increases severe flood risk
Meantime, larger plastic waste is blocking drains and exacerbating lethal floods in densely populated urban slums around the world, emphasising the fact that plastic pollution mostly affects the poorest, most marginalised communities e.g. toxic smoke from burning, or catastrophic floods and their resulting outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases.
Plastics and health
An increasing number of publications are documenting human health issues as in this overview. Microplastics have been found in the human blood stream and tissues as well as in many marine and land-based creatures, with shocking examples of larger plastic waste being ingested by, or entrapping wildlife, big and small.
Compostable plastic is not the answer
It sounds great, but most compostable plastic requires specific industrial composting to break down. "Compostable plastics are currently incompatible with most waste management systems and so they often end up either incinerated or put into landfill". Compostable Co-op bags should not be placed in plastic recycling bins. Studies have shown that most 'compostables' don't break down in soil or in seawater. To demystify biodegradable and compostable, read this Which article
A solution? Reuse systems
A reuse system is one way of reducing plastic pollution by allowing multiple circulations of reusable packaging loaned to the consumer by the system. Alternatively, consumers can use their own reuseable containers: a metal water bottle, waxed cloth instead of cling film to wrap sandwiches or lumps of cheese. Take your own plastic, glass or metal containers to a refillery to re-stock with dry foods, oils, or cleaning agents.
Global Plastic Treaty
Plastic pollution is a global problem that needs a global solution and so negotiations are currently in progress at the UN for a Global Plastics Treaty. Where possible, alternatives to plastic have to be considered everywhere, and it is time to end the age of single-use plastic.
Global plastics production shows no sign of slowing down.
The plastic crisis in UK
In Greenpeace's Big Plastic Count in May 2022, nearly a quarter of a million people counted their plastic waste for one week. On average each household threw away 66 pieces of plastic which, scaled up for the whole UK, equates to 96 billion pieces of plastic every year. 83% of this was food and drink packaging. Just over half of the pieces of plastic thrown away during The Big Plastic Count were soft plastics and plastic film – used in everyday items like crisp packets, bread bags and toilet roll wrap. Soft plastic is notoriously difficult to recycle – meaning just 13% of local authorities collect it. While some supermarkets have set up soft plastic take-back schemes, like the Co-ops on Skye and Lochalsh, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Greenpeace estimates that only 12% of our household plastic packaging waste is actually recycled in the UK. Of the other 88%, 17% is exported to other countries to deal with where it may be dumped and burned, creating environmental and human health problems. 25% of the plastic waste goes to landfill, where it slowly degrades and releases toxins and microplastics, which can pollute the air and waterways. And almost half (46%) is burnt in incinerators, which can release noxious gases and, because plastic is made from fossil fuels, burning it releases greenhouse gases that are fuelling the climate crisis.
While the UK government has announced some steps towards tackling the tide of plastic, too much plastic is being produced and recycling is not enough – to deal with it we must turn off the plastic tap.
If you wish to sign Greenpeace's petition to the UK government for more urgent action on plastics, you can click here.
[Thanks to Skye Climate Action for this item.]
Single-use plastics - new laws come into force June 2022
Zero Waste Scotland has produced a summary of the new legislation which will ban or restrict the manufacture and sale of certain single-use plastic items from 1 June 2022.
Which companies are the worst plastic polluters?
by Anne MacLennan Skye Climate action
Break Free from Plastic has just released their annual Brand Audit Report, Branded: holding corporations accountable for the plastic and climate crisis. 11,000 volunteers in 45 countries collected 330,000 bits of plastic for the audit, and then analysed them to identify the companies responsible. From over 7,000 brands, the worst polluters for this year were Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Unilever, Nestlé, Proctor and Gamble, Mondelēz International, Philip Morris International, Danone, Mars, and Colgate Palmolive.
As plastic is made from fossil fuels, “the world’s addiction to single use plastic is a serious contributor to the climate crisis” Today’s convenience leads to tomorrow’s chaos. The report adds that “if the entire plastic lifecycle were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world”. Fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and Dow make the plastic resin and sell it to packaging manufacturers who then supply Coca Cola and other ‘Fast moving consumer goods’ companies. Indeed, fossil fuel companies are planning to ramp up plastic production to keep them going as their usual markets are whittled away by renewable energy and electric vehicles.
October 2021 from Changeworks newsletter
Wrap - Clear on Plastic
Cutting through the confusion with clear, evidence-based information
Clear on Plastics™ is a campaign brought to you by WRAP, and supported by The UK Plastics Pact. It exists to cut through the confusion and give citizens clear, evidence-based information on plastics and sustainability, allowing them to make their own informed choices.
Our aim is to give people clear information about the complex world of plastics, waste and recycling – for instance, explaining the role of plastics, and demonstrating the balance between the benefits and drawbacks of alternatives.
The campaign aims to make citizens feel more well-informed about plastics in order to make their own, sustainable choices; with content based on the latest citizen conversations, online and in the media, in order to achieve reach and impact.
'The Story of Plastic' - Skye Climate action
Skye Climate Action arranged a viewing and discussion of this 96 minute documentary film.
THE STORY OF PLASTIC presents a cohesive timeline of how we got to our current global plastic pollution crisis and how the oil and gas industry has successfully manipulated the narrative around it. From the extraction of fossil fuels and plastic disposal to the global resistance fighting back, THE STORY OF PLASTIC is a life-changing film depicting one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues.
Watch the trailer The Story of Plastic (documentary film) - Story of Stuff
You can also watch a free 4 minute animated video The Story of Plastic
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