Our Responsibility for our Environment (2)

Plastic pollution – the big picture.


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WEA Course Protecting the Planet Introduction


‘’Plastic is a microcosm of all our other environmental problems. This means facing up to how interconnected these problems are: to recognise that plastic isn’t just an isolated problem that we can banish from our lives, but simply the most visible product of our past half-century of rampant consumption”.

(Quote from article by Stephen Buranyi, The Guardian ‘The long read’, ‘Why we all hate plastic now... and can we really do anything about it?’ Tues 13th Nov 2018):

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/13/the-plastic-backlash-whats-behind-our-sudden-rage-and-will-it-make-a-difference  [slide 1]

1. The extent of plastic production, waste and damage:

 Plastic is everywhere.  I think most people are aware of the problem of plastic polluting our oceans and rivers – and I will go into this in more detail in a minute. But first let me explain what plastic is, and where it comes from, as I think this helps us to understand how the problem has arisen.

The word ‘plastic’ simply means something that can be made into various shapes (another word is malleable). The earliest plastics were made from organic materials, but the first ‘modern’ plastic was invented in 1907 in New York. It was known as ‘bakelite’ – after its inventor Leo Baekeland, and it was made from phenol, a chemical left over from refining crude oil or coal to turn it into petrol.


Mass production began during the 1940s and ‘50s, especially when more materials were needed during the second world war. The petrochemical industry benefited, as it was the main source of plastic.


Plastic was regarded as a wonderful discovery, because it is virtually indestructible. (But of course that’s why we have a problem now!). It has been used in an enormous range of applications as a lighter and cheaper substitute for such materials as wood, stone, leather, metal and glass. It is used for packaging, and as a building material, and for plumbing, and in toys and even cars... (50% by volume!).  It is above all seen as disposable: in 1954 the editor of the trade journal Modern Plastics said ‘the future of plastics is in the trash can.’ It is surprising to find that in the US, prior to 1950, reusable packaging such as glass bottles had a nearly 95% return rate. By the 70s the rate for all container returns had dropped below 5%. (Buranyi)


Some protests began over the amount of rubbish piling up, and New York City brought in a tax on plastic bottles in 1971.Hawaii actually banned plastic bottles in 1977! However, this and other legislation was reversed after pressure from the plastic manufacturers...


Importantly, for me, the story of the origin of plastic also immediately raises a number of important environmental issues, particularly climate change: the burning of fossil fuel is what drives climate change, and the dominant companies in plastic production are major petro-chemical companies such as Mobil, Exxon, DuPont, BASF, Monsanto, and Dow. [slide 2]


Seven of the 10 largest plastic producers are oil and natural gas companies. When the public started rejecting single-use plastic bags in the US, BP predicted that by 2040 the industry would be producing 2m fewer barrels of oil per day.


It is worth noting that Monsanto and Dow are also heavily involved in pesticide manufacture – another cause for concern, given the current decline in wildlife and especially insects.


Another not-so-well-known petro-chemical company, INEOS is one of the largest producers of plastic in the world, and it wants to carry out fracking – to extract gas from shale rocks - in Yorkshire. [slide 3]


Fracking involves drilling deep into the rocks below the earth’s surface, where oil and gas are trapped, and injecting strong chemicals at high pressure so that the rocks fracture (hence the name) releasing the gas which is then pumped up to the surface. Opponents of fracking argue that it can release greenhouse gases such as methane into the atmosphere, it can cause earthquakes, and it simply should not be done, because we need to stop burning fossil fuels such as gas. INEOS’s plans and its sponsorship of the Yorkshire cycle race [check] have led to protests.


So I’ve said what plastic is, and where it comes from, and I’ve raised some issues connected with the wider context.



2. Now let’s look at the extent to which plastic dominates our world:


Since the 1950s, around 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide.

We have been dramatically increasing the amount of plastic we produce: over the past 50 years, world plastic production has doubled. By 2050 we will be producing 1.1 billion tonnes per year, i.e. 36 tonnes per second. [slide 4]

A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. [slide 5]


Worldwide, about 2 million plastic bags are used every minute.


Plastic bottles are the most prevalent form of plastic pollution, followed by food wrappers and then cigarette butts. Plastic bags only comprise 1%, showing the bans etc have had an impact, according to the Plastic Rivers Report (check for reference).


Bottles and plastic bags are examples of ‘single-use’ plastic – once used they are discarded. The average time that a plastic bag is used for is … 12 minutes. Then it takes up to a thousand years to decompose!


Why have plastic water bottles become so widespread? Of course they are light and convenient, and it’s easier to throw away a disposable plastic bottle than to remember to carry a long-lasting one with you.

And, of course, we live in what some people call a ‘disposable society’ or a ‘throwaway society’– we are encouraged to keep buying more things (this is consumerism of course), and if what we buy doesn’t last, then we will be obliged to replace it...

So, in the end, it is the producers who benefit. In the case of bottled water this is really obvious: ‘a litre of tap water, the stuff we have ingeniously piped into our homes, costs less than half a penny. A litre of bottled water can cost well over a pound, especially for something fancy that has been sucked through a mountain’ (Simon Usborne, Guardian 28th April 2019).

Sales of bottled water in the UK were worth a record £558.4m in the year to last November, an increase of 7%, according to the latest figures from the market analyst Kantar.

3. Litter and waste:

The most obvious problem caused by plastic is litter [slide 6], and 73% of beach litter worldwide is plastic [slide 7].  Most of this beach litter will have come from the sea, and I will focus on this kind of litter in a little while.


The amount of waste we create is astounding: UK households and businesses used 11m tonnes of packaging last year, according to government figures – much of this is exported. At least 100 containers of plastic waste a day are shipped out from ports including Felixstowe and Southampton to Europe and the Far East. (See later)

Recently there have been difficulties because some countries have refused to take any more of our waste, or because they have been unable to process it properly – there has also been concern because it is regarded as wrong for us to dump our waste on other countries. I will also return to this problem later.

4. History, origins, causes of the plastics problem:

As noted earlier, there will always be pressure for plastic to be produced because it is a part of the petro-chemical industry, on the one hand, and because we consumers have found it so useful.

What is fascinating is that (i) we have become aware of the problem caused by plastic only fairly recently and yet (ii) the public are already concerned and reacting. We used to see plastic as just a nuisance, now we see it as a threat to our wellbeing – even, as I shall argue – to our survival!

[slide 8]

The first people to become aware of the way plastic was getting to places it wasn’t wanted were using a plankton sampling device – collecting pelagic plankton which indicates water quality as well as being a source of food for marine life. This has been recording problems when its work was disrupted by plastic... Strands of fishing twine were first found off the coast of Iceland in 1957, then a plastic bag in 1965. During the three decades from the ‘50s less than 1% of tows were disrupted, by the 1990s it was 2% and now it is between 3% and 4%.

What was disturbing was the rate at which the disruption was increasing. Also, the device was towed at a depth of about 7 metres, which is where many fish and marine mammals are found, and it covered a very wide range of oceans (the worst was the southern North Sea).

Then, in the early 1990s, researchers noticed that some 60-80% of the waste in the ocean was non-biodegradable plastic. In some places the waste accumulates into ‘great garbage patches’ (as they were called by another oceanographer) – the largest of these is three times the size of France and contains 79,000 tonnes of waste!

The next shift in thinking came when it was realised that shampoos, cosmetics and cleaning products all had ‘microbeads’ in them: even Body Shop products had them, and in 2010 scientists became concerned that they were being washed out into the sea, and would be eaten by fish. In 2015 the US Congress passed a limited ban on microbeads with broad partisan support. The UK soon followed suit with a comprehensive ban on their manufacture and sale.

Ever since, and with David Attenborough’s television programmes, Blue Planet, we have become aware of how serious a problem plastic is.


5. Effects on our oceans: animals die, and biodiversity is reduced.

A lot of waste plastic is dumped in rivers and then flows into the sea. In fact 90% of plastic polluting our oceans is carried by just 10 rivers. Each year 8m tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean, [slide 9] so that there are now 100 million tonnes (approximately 110 million U.S. tons) of plastic in the oceans, and 80 to 90 percent of it comes from land, UN Environment said.

I would like in this section of my talk to focus on the harm being done to the oceans and life in the sea, as I believe that most of us do not appreciate how important the sea is to our survival.

Up to 5,900 tonnes of plastic pellets used in manufacturing, and between 1,400 and 3,700 tonnes of paint are lost to surface waters each year.

Only 13% of the world’s oceans has been untouched by humans.

There are about 230,000 marine species living in our oceans, but by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight than fish according to the Allen MacArthur Foundation.

Plastic is killing more than 1.1 million seabirds and animals every year. One of the main problems is fishing gear – nets especially, which can trap mammals such as dolphins as well as birds.


One of the most frightening examples I have come across was of a dead whale which had 1,000 plastic items in its stomach (Nov. 2018). It was a 9.5 metre sperm whale. The plastic weighed 5.9 kg.


The whale was washed up in eastern Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China. The plastic in its stomach included flip-flops, and over a hundred drinking cups according to staff from Wakatobi national park.


Dolphins, and even polar bears have been affected. This phenomenon shows how all our environmental problems are interconnected:


As Arctic ice melts, polar bears are having to seek food elsewhere, and they are moving into areas inhabited by humans. They have been known to eat plastic when they scavenge on rubbish dumps. Of course, plastic is indigestible, so the bears think they are taking in food, but it is doing them no food whatsoever.


Plastic has been found to cause disease in coral reefs. (26th January 2018. Damian Carrington). Scientists examined 125,000 corals across the Asia-Pacific region, and 89% of the corals examined that were fouled by plastic were found to be diseased.  

Corals are not only home to a diverse range of life, but they are vital for at least 275 million people who depend on them for food, coastal protection from storms, and income from tourism.

Plastic was found on a third of the reefs examined between 2011 and 2014, and diseases spread across a colony once there is infection. Plastic cuts the living creatures in the coral, and blocks out sunlight. Plastic pollution is estimated as likely to increase to 16bn pieces by 2025 (an increase of 40%) unless action is taken. Repeated bleaching is now the ‘new normal’ according to Prof Terry Hughes of James Cook University’s centre for coral reef studies.

There is a rich variety of life there. But we are damaging it in many ways, including the dumping of plastic. [slides 10 & 11]

[slide 12] Where there is a variety of life we speak of biodiversity, and the important point is that we need biodiversity to survive. Living things exist in what we call ecosystems – that is, an environment where they interact with each other (usually by having other species as food). The more complex and rich an ecosystem is, the more stable it is. But you only have to reduce the number of life-forms in an ecosystem to a certain level and the whole system will collapse.

I came across a startling illustration of this principle in a recent article on bees [slide 13]. It has been shown that where there is a variety of wild flowers you get a variety of species of bee. There are 25,000 species of bee worldwide by the way – honey bees that live in hives are only one species, many others are solitary. All bees are pollinators, and farmers have found their crops are pollinated more effectively when there is a variety of bees around. ‘In some trials, harvests doubled or even tripled, because solitary bees can pollinate some flowering plants 100 times more effectively than honeybees.’ (Alison Benjamin). Sadly, we are losing bees, along with many other living creatures, because of our industrialised agriculture, pesticides, and climate change.

To return to the ocean: World Wide Fund for Nature estimated in 2015 that the number of fish in the oceans had halved since 1970. Clearly we are over-fishing in many places, and the threat of plastic poisoning fish can only make the situation worse.

6. One of the most serious dangers, including for ourselves, comes from microplastics:

The term ‘microplastic[slide 14] was coined in 2004 by the oceanographer Richard Thompson. It indicates any small particle of plastic less than 5mm in length (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)  Thompson realised there were literally billions of tiny pieces of plastic in the oceans.

Microplastic comes from the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic, and from tyres and synthetic clothing (according to FoE).

Between 9 and 32 thousand tonnes of microplastic enters waterways each year from just four sources: tyre abrasion accounts for 7-19,000 tonnes. Clothing creates up to 2,900 tonnes – and two thirds of clothing is made from synthetic material, (according to a report by Eunomia).

Studies have found microplastics in the gut of fish, and in tap water and in flying insects. In Italy a recent investigation found them in soft drinks.

A study led by Christian Dunn at Bangor University shows how much microplastic there is in our waterways: they were found in all 10 lakes, rivers and reservoirs studied. In the Tame, (near Manchester) – which is the most contaminated place yet tested in the world, there were more than 1,000 pieces per litre. Even in remote places like Loch Lomond there were two or three pieces per litre. The Thames had about 80 particles per litre, and the Blackwater in Essex had 15.( Ullswater has 30, and the Llyn Cefni reservoir on Anglesey had 40.)

Plastic has been found in Swiss mountains and in the deepest parts of the oceans.  Sea salt has microplastics in it: The most common type of plastic found was polyethylene terephthalate, the material used to make plastic bottles.

The average person eats 70,000 microplastics each year, because of the food chain... In October 2017 microplastics were found in human stools. Particles have been found in the stools of eight people from Europe, Japan and Russia.

Up to 9 different plastics were found out of 10 varieties tested for. Most common were polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate were the most common. On average, 20 particles per 10g were found.


The authors of this study, carried out by the Environment Agency Austria, led by a medical researcher from University of Vienna, estimate that more than 50% of the world’s population might have microplastics in their stools.


Although nothing is known about the impact on human health, in birds they damage the small intestine, disrupt iron absorption and stress the liver, and there are concerns, obviously, that we could be harming ourselves. Scientists have struggled to research the impact of plastic on the human body, because they cannot find a control group of humans who have not been exposed (Sep 2017, Guardian).

A study in Singapore has shown microplastics can harbour harmful bacteria, which then will enter the food chain (especially through sea-food)...  So while plastic may be inert, the danger comes from what bacteria or poisonous chemicals might get attached to it and then ingested by fish and eventually by ourselves.

7. The bigger issues:

7.1 The interconnected web of life on earth.

Earlier this month (May 2019) the United Nations released a dramatic report on the natural world.  [slide 15]

The report comes from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Its conclusions include the following:

Almost 1 million species face extinction - the largest number in human history ever to be facing the threat of oblivion. Many species could be wiped out within decades.

There are threats to more than 40% of amphibians, to 33% of coral reefs (around half of all live coral reef cover has been lost since the 1870s), and to over a third of all marine mammals.

This is because of loss of habitat, due to:

- pollution (this includes plastic: Since 1980 plastic pollution has increased tenfold)

- over-exploitation (including over-fishing, contributing to the fact mentioned above that there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to livestock production, and in 2015, 33 percent of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels.)

- changes in land use (more than a third of the world’s land surface is devoted to food production, and about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by land clearing, crop production and fertilization, and essential crops are under threat because of years of unsustainable agricultural practices. 23% of land areas have reduced agricultural productivity due to land degradation).

The main conclusions drawn by the report, and which underlie this talk, are:


1. Climate breakdown and the decimation of the natural world are connected, and human action is the cause. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Professor Josef Settele (ecologist and Co-chair of the IPBES).


2. Without the life-essential services nature provides — breathable air, drinkable water, healthy oceans, a stable climate — humans will not survive.


3. We can expect opposition to changes from vested interests, but there is still time to conserve natural habitats, if we act quickly to preserve key areas.

[slide 16] The report’s lead author, Professor Sir Robert Watson, says: “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity…”

7.2 The life-cycle approach to plastic: human health, climate change

[slide 17].

As I mentioned near the start of this talk, plastic is a by-product of the petro-chemical industry.  I believe we need to look at the whole life-cycle of plastics in order to understand the harm that is being done to us.

Recently (February 2019) a group of organisations, headed by CIEL – the Center for International Environmental law has published a report - Plastic & Health - which presents the full panorama of human health impacts of plastic and counsels that any solution to the plastic crisis must address the full lifecycle’.

It points out that there are ‘significant, complex, and intersecting human health impacts [which] occur at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management to ongoing impacts of microplastics in the air, water, and soil.’

The report lists poisonous chemicals and microplastics that we are exposed to in the air we breathe and on our skin and in what we eat, that are produced at every stage in the life-cycle of plastic.

What is more striking is that CIEL has estimated the greenhouse gas footprint of plastic from the cradle to the grave for the first time.

It points out that greenhouse gases are produced during the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels from which plastic is made, then during the refining process, and the manufacturing process, and still more when it is disposed of (whether by burning or recycling).

Forty per cent of plastic packaging waste is disposed of at landfills, 14% goes to incineration facilities and 14% is collected for recycling. Incineration creates the most CO2 emissions among the plastic waste management methods.

The report also says that production of plastic is increasing, especially as the US is producing oil from fracking.  

A Shell ethane cracker being constructed in Pennsylvania could emit up to 2.25m tonnes of CO2 each year and a new ethylene plant at ExxonMobil’s refinery in Baytown, Texas, could release up to 1.4m tonnes. The annual emissions from just these two new facilities would be equal to adding almost 800,000 cars to the road.

Total emissions from the life-cycle of plastic are currently approximately 0.75 billion tonnes, and by 2050 the figure could be 2.75 billion tonnes per annum.

To put this another way, in 2019 the emissions were equivalent to the impact on the climate of 189 500MW coal-fired power stations. By 2050, the report predicts, the global plastic footprint will be equivalent to 615 coal plants running at full capacity.

“At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5C,” the report says. (Sandra Laville, Guardian 15th May 2019)

8. A few more ‘wide’ issues:

A global justice issue (from The Ecologist magazine): [slide 18]

Plastic waste is going to countries that cannot cope with it. China stopped accepting waste (from USA, UK, Germany and Japan) at the beginning of 2018, and so it went to other countries in Southeast Asia.  

Every second, a double-decker busload of plastic waste is burned or dumped in developing countries, the report found. When some plastics deteriorate, they can leach harmful chemicals into the environment and break down into microplastics, with effects that are still poorly understood and largely undocumented in poorer countries.

Some countries tried to impose limits on what they took, but research by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and Greenpeace East Asia found waste piled ten feet high, crops poisoned, and open plastic burning, which seriously affects people living nearby, as toxic gases are released into the air when plastic burns.

According to the charity Tearfund, municipal waste frequently goes uncollected in poorer countries and its build-up fuels the spread of disease. Between 400,000 and 1 million people are dying as a result of such mismanaged waste.

Plastic waste is blocking waterways and causing flooding, which in turn spreads waterborne diseases.

Among the other harmful impacts of plastic pollution in poorer countries are the loss of fishing, as marine animals ingest the plastic; damage to agriculture, as up to a third of cattle and half of goats in developing countries have consumed significant amounts of plastic, harming their health as it leads to potentially fatal bloating; and large amounts of plastic waste washing up on shorelines and coral reefs deterring tourists, on whom many poorer countries rely.

At least 2 billion people around the world do not have their rubbish collected, and piles of it can build up in waterways, causing pollution, or rot in areas near where people live. Living near rubbish doubles the risk of contracting diarrhoea, the report found, which is a major cause of death in the developing world.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world make a living from collecting waste, in some cases by collecting cans or bottles that can be recycled or returned, or, more dangerously, as “waste pickers” who live on rubbish dumps and scavenge what they can.

This is hazardous work, not only because of the pollution to which people are exposed but also because of the risk of physical injury, not least because poorly managed dumps are often affected by landslides and even explosions from the buildup of gases. (The Guardian has published a number of articles on this, e.g.: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/14/mismanaged-waste-kills-up-to-a-million-people-a-year-globally.  

The Ecologist also points out that when North America and Europe cannot find outlets in developing countries the waste piles up in less-wealthy, more at-risk communities in America or Europe. There, it becomes a public health problem.

They conclude:

‘The recycling system only works to target the vulnerable — around the world and around your city.’

‘Corporations like Nestlé and Unilever profit wildly from single-use plastic packaging, while peddling the myth of recycling as a solution. But anyone who has thought seriously about the issue can see that recycling could never handle the amount of plastic surrounding our everyday life.’  

There are more problems with the recycling industry: [slide 19]

The Environment Agency is investigating suspected widespread abuse and fraud, including complaints that organised criminals and firms are abusing the system. Two-thirds of our plastic packaging waste is exported by an export industry which was worth more than £50m last year.

Six UK exporters of plastic waste have had their licences suspended or cancelled in the last three months. One firm has had 57 containers of plastic waste stopped at UK ports in the last three years due to concerns over contamination of waste.

Allegations include:

Exporters are falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste which might not exist

UK plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans

Illegal shipments of plastic waste are being routed to the Far East via the Netherlands (a kind of ‘laundering’ of plastic!)

UK firms with serial offences of shipping contaminated waste are being allowed to continue exporting.

Insiders said EA staff have never visited any of the countries or sites where British waste plastic is exported for recycling. Staff shortages have been blamed. As if this wasn’t enough, 400 staff from the Environment Agency, which enforces environmental regulations and protects biodiversity in the UK, and natural England, which protects habitats and species, have been redeployed to work on Brexit.  (Guardian, 19th Oct 2018, Sandra Laville).

9. Action, solutions... [slide 20]

9.1 International agreements:

The United Nations has said single-use plastic should be banned.

The UN’s Global Goals include calls to protect life on land and life below water (Goal No. 14 and 15), and to create cities and communities that are sustainable (Goal No.11).....

9.2 Marine Protected Areas and UNESCO island and coastal biosphere areas.

There are 52 UNESCO island and coastal biosphere areas, including Menorca, the Maldives, the Philippines, Mauritius, Jeju in South Korea and Noosa in Australia. They are awarded this status for commitment to protecting the coastal environment and biodiversity.

For example, the Isle of Man has been designated a UNESCO biosphere region, and it has rid its beaches of plastic. In 2007 it took people six weekends to clear plastic litter, and they found 30,000 plastic bottles and large pieces of plastic. A charity – Beach Buddies – carries out regular clean-ups.

There are about 15,000 marine protected areas (MPAs) covering about 7% of the world’s oceans. Half the US’s territorial waters are protected, and other countries such as France, Australia have MPAs. It is important to distinguish different kinds of MPA though, as only ‘fully protected’ or ‘strongly protected’ areas are really effective.

A fully protected area can increase the total mass of marine life by more than 400%. This is needed because sea life has been declining, as demonstrated above.

9.3 The Basel Convention is a legally binding agreement on cross-border waste disposal signed by almost every country in the world, including the European Union.  

An agreement was reached Friday 10th May after a two-week meeting of the Conferences of Parties (COPs) to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions in Geneva. It took the form of an amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal, and is backed by 187 countries (excluding the U.S.)

They agreed to amend the convention to include plastic waste and improve the regulation of its trade.

"Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world's most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to 1 million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention Parties to take action here in Geneva at the COPs is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high," UN Environment's Executive Secretary of the three conventions Rolph Payet said in a press release.

"This is a crucial first step towards stopping the use of developing countries as a dumping ground for the world's plastic waste, especially those coming from rich nations," Break Free from Plastic global coordinator Von Hernandez said, as CNN reported. "Countries at the receiving end of mixed and unsorted plastic waste from foreign sources now have the right to refuse these problematic shipments, in turn compelling source countries to ensure exports of clean, recyclable plastics only."

9.4 Governments & consumers: [slide 21]

EU Parliament agreed to ban the most harmful single use plastics by 2021.

Our own government aims to phase out non-recyclable packaging in the next 25 years. [slide] The fact that microbeads were banned soon after the public became aware of them is a sign that action can be taken. Meanwhile, what are the actions that can be taken now?

There is a hierarchy of actions that Friends of the Earth and others follow: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. By ‘hierarchy’ I mean that reducing is the best step, and then re-using and then recycling – recycling is the least successful.


Greenpeace has observed that the plastics industry is trying to prevent measures the government wants to introduce, such as a tax on plastic:

“Philip Hammond's 2018 Budget included proposals aimed at making the UK a "world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic littering our planet." The UK’s leading plastics trade group is planning to push chancellor Philip Hammond to water down his proposed plastics tax, lobbying documents leaked to Unearthed show. This is despite the group’s own analysis showing the proposed tax would significantly boost the use of recycled plastics in packaging, one of the tax’s core goals”. See:



Schemes that lead to Reducing the amount of plastic consumed:

Deposit return schemes:


The Scottish government announced this month (May 2019 that it will be introducing a deposit return system for glass, plastic and aluminium drinks containers of all sizes.  

The Campaign to Protect Rural England said: ‘we applaud their leadership and ambition. England’s system is still up for grabs, and we think Michael Gove should build on Scotland’s design and go one better, by making sure every drinks carton is included within England’s deposit system’.


There should be a deposit return system for all drinks containers – and the producers should be liable for the costs of dealing with packaging, say the CPRE.

The deposit charge on carrier bags has also been shown to work, since these now comprise only 1% of the pollution. However, supermarkets are still producing billions each year. A survey of the top 10 supermarkets by Greenpeace revealed they were producing 1.1bn single-use plastic bags, 1.2bn plastic produce bags for fruit and vegetables and 958m reusable “bags for life” a year. (Guardian, Sandra Laville, 20th April 2019).

Supermarkets Reducing their packaging:

Greenpeace has carried out a survey of supermarkets, ranking them by how much they do about plastics: Best is Iceland, scoring 58% for reducing single-use plastic, 47% for eliminating non-recyclable plastic, 49% for influencing suppliers, and 84% for transparency. Worst is Sainsbury’s, 31%..... 15%....  36%.... 61%....


Unlike glass or metal, plastic is one of the worst materials for recycling (says Stephen Buranyi), because it significantly degrades each time it is recycled. Plastic bottles cannot be recycled into new bottles of the same quality: although there is a kind of plastic called PCR – ‘Post-Consumer Recycled Resin’ – made from used PET or HDPE plastic – it cannot be used for food, as it does not meet the safety standards required. It also has a slight yellow coloration.

Ecover make washing-up liquid, and is ‘on track to make every single one of our bottles from fully recycled PCR plastic by the end of the year’. Making PCR requires less energy than making plastic in the first place, and contributes 20% less greenhouse gases. Not a major change?

More often, recycled plastic becomes clothing fibres, or slats for furniture, or plastic insulation. These items then end up as rubbish because they cannot be recycled any further.

Less than 10% of plastic is recycled in the US each year, and it is public bodies that are collecting the plastic, not industry, because it is not profitable.

Paper cups for hot drinks are a well-known problem, because they are lined with plastic (polyethylene). The coating on paper cups can be ‘easily separated from the paper using water, but there are only five cup recycling plants across the UK that are already doing this.

Glasgow, Leeds and Cardiff are showing cup collection initiatives. ‘Used paper cups are accepted at Costa, Nero, Greggs, Starbucks and McDonald’s and there are now 4,500 high-street collection points and over 20 waste management companies supporting paper cup collection schemes.’

The UK Plastics Pact:

Dozens of companies in the UK signed a pledge in April 2018 to crackdown on plastic pollution by 2025. 

It’s called the UK Plastics Pact, and it unites 42 government departments, trade associations, retailers, campaign groups, and more, behind four targets to curb plastic waste. 

Combined, those that have signed the pact are responsible for 80% of the plastic packaging on products sold in UK supermarkets, according to the BBC. 

 Tesco was one of the supermarkets that signed, along with Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Waitrose.

However, campaigners have consistently said that voluntary action isn’t enough, and that we need legal enforcements in place to hold businesses accountable to their pledges. 

Supermarkets in the UK currently pay less towards the proper collection and disposal of plastic waste than in any other country in the EU, according to a 2018 Guardian report. Instead, taxpayers pay 90% of the total cost. Surely supermarkets should not be allowed to pass on these costs to the consumer?

More recently, Tesco supermarket has launched a trial for an innovative recycling scheme specifically focusing on plastics that can’t be recycled by local authorities: soft plastics like crisp packets, plastic bags, and pet food pouches.

The supermarket has now partnered with Swindon-based recycling specialist Recycling Technologies, and is encouraging shoppers to bring their non-recyclable plastics to collection points at 10 stores across Swindon and Bristol. 

And if the trial goes well, the initiative could be rolled out across the whole of the UK. The soft plastics returned to the store will be converted back into oil by Recycling Technologies, and then that oil can be used in the production of new plastics. However, I must stress that this can only be done a few times – unlike glass or metal, plastic deteriorates when it is re-processed.

Recycling at home and by local authorities:

According to the most recent government data, from 2017, the UK recycling rate for waste from households is about 46% — still short of the EU target to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020. 

For packaging waste specifically, plastic falls far short of most other recyclable materials. In 2017, according to the data about 46% of plastic packaging was recycled; compared to 71% of metal, 79% of paper, and 67% of glass. 

In Havering where I live, the council’s rubbish collection will only take bottle-shaped plastic, as that is the only thing its contractors can handle!

A novel idea for recycling plastic:

2018 Daniel Boffey: a bicycle path has been made of recycled plastic.

In the Netherlands a 30-metre path made from 218,000 recycled plastic cups has opened in Zwolle (in the north-east) as part of a trial. It is expected to be three times as durable as asphalt. The venture has been carried out by engineers KWS, Total (oil and gas), and Wavin (pipemaker). Other places including Rotterdam may take up the technology. The path is made in prefabricated sections which are light and hollow, and easy to transport; cables and pipes can easily be fitted inside and it is designed to drain off rainwater. It is seen as sustainable...

Asphalt is responsible for 1.5m tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, which is 2% of global road transport emissions. Clearly, if this is a viable proposition then using plastic instead of asphalt could help to reduce global warming, but the reduction will be small of course. 

Biodegradable plastic:

As I said at the start, the big attraction of plastic was that it lasted for ever. Then we realised that this is not what we want! So scientists are working on making plastic that biodegrades – that is, it rots down, and often then can be made into compost. If this is done by a process called ‘oxo-biodegradation, then it decays more quickly and can be recycled into nature by naturally occurring bacteria. Oxo-biodegradation is required by law in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan. It creates no toxicity.

However, again, we have to be cautious about plastic biodegrading: it has been found that plastic bags that claim to be biodegradable were still intact and able to carry shopping three years after being exposed to the natural environment. (*)

The research for the first time tested compostable bags, two forms of biodegradable bag and conventional carrier bags after long-term exposure to the sea, air and earth. None of the bags decomposed fully in all environments.

Researchers say more work is needed to establish what the breakdown products are and to consider any potential environmental consequences.

Researchers from the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit say the study – published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology – raises the question of whether biodegradable formulations can be relied on to offer a sufficiently advanced rate of degradation and therefore a realistic solution to the problem of plastic litter.

Re-using plastic:

Some plastic items can be re-used – for example, containers for food can be used to grow plants; sculptures and decorations can be made from plastic waste, etc. However, it is obvious that this is not anything like a solution to the problems I have described. Reduction all round – in production and use – is the only solution.

[slide 22]


I have talked about our reliance on plastic, and the wide range of problems it causes – in terms of waste, pollution, and harm to wildlife and to ourselves.

I hope I have demonstrated that the problem of plastic cannot be taken in isolation from other environmental issues: there are links to climate change (through the petro-chemical industry), and there is an enormous impact on biodiversity (along with other factors such as industrialised agriculture).

Still, it should be clear that there are actions we can take to reduce or even eliminate our use of plastic, and I hope you will all take away some thoughts about what can be done internationally, by governments, by industry, and by ourselves. 

I will end with a quote from an article by Stephen Buryani, (The Guardian ‘The long read’, ‘Why we all hate plastic now... and can we really do anything about it?’ Tues 13th Nov 2018):

 ‘’Plastic is a microcosm of all our other environmental problems.

This means facing up to how interconnected these problems are:  to recognise that plastic isn’t just an isolated problem that we can banish from our lives, but simply the most visible product of our past half-century of rampant consumption.

But there is cause for optimism, since scientists, business, government and the public, are all aware of the problem, and all agree that something must be done”.