Our Responsibility for our Environment (2)

Plastic pollution – the big picture

(Second Guest Lecture given to the London School of Management Education).



First guest lecture for the London School of Management Education: Our Responsibility for our Environment (1)

Imagining Other Index Page

WEA Course Protecting the Planet: Introduction

Updates and extra notes on plastic


‘’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!


The only biodegradable plastics are those made from natural polymers, and cellophane – which are expensive (from notes by UEL student).

The average time that a plastic bag is used for is … 12 minutes. Then it takes about 20 years to degrade.

(From The Telegraph Jan 2018:


The most durable plastic items, such as bottles, disposable nappies and beer holders, can take 450 years to biodegrade - over five times the average life expectancy of a British person. Other commonplace items such as straws can take up to 200 years to biodegrade and foam plastic cups can take 50 years.

Plastic bags are around for less time - taking about 20 years to degrade - but their impact on the environment can be equally as harmful, with plastic bags known to be eaten by a variety of marine wildlife. Jo Ruxton, a former researcher on Blue Planet and producer of the A Plastic Ocean film, said single-use items could float around in the seas for decades causing havoc in the marine eco-system.

She said: “It is estimated that 60 to 70 per cent of the plastic sinks to the bottom [of the ocean]. It gets brittle as it gets old and breaks into tiny pieces and mixes into the plankton, which is the heart of the marine food chain. “We are producing far too much plastic believing it is disposable. It’s not, it’s indestructible.”

Plastic 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 ‘Tour de Yorkshire’ cycle race 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. [slide 4]

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.

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. (As noted before: the average time that a plastic bag is used for is … 12 minutes. Then it takes hundreds of 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...

(23rd Jan 2020). Problem is amount of plastic we make and use: (Damian Carrington)

Annually, humans consume over 100bn tonnes of material, and this is four times what it was in 1970. In the last 2 years, consumption has gone up by 8%, but re-use has gone down from 9.1% to 8.6%. [Report by the Circle Economy thinktank (lead author: Marc de Wit, chief executive: Harald Friedl), launched at Davos].

On average, every person on earth uses more than 13 tonnes of materials per year. 

Half is sand, clay, gravel and cement, and minerals quarried for fertiliser; coal oil and gas make up 15%, metal ores 10%. Plants etc used for food and fuel: 25%. Housing accounts for 40%. 15% is emitted as climate-heating gases, and nearly a quarter is discarded into the environment. A third is treated as waste.

(13 European countries have adopted road-maps towards a circular economy. China’s ban on waste has made other countries such as Australia think about a circular economy.)

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, that is noticeable, problem caused by plastic is litter [slide 6], and 73% of beach litter worldwide is plastic [slide 7].  The amount of litter seems to be increasing (Marine Conservation Society).


Most of this beach litter will have come from the sea, - about 12million tonnes each year - and I will focus on this kind of litter in a little while.


The amount of plastic waste we create is astounding: UK households and businesses used 11m tonnes of packaging last year, according to government figures.

Recycling rates in UK have fallen – last year (2016) to 44% according to Keep Britain Tidy. Only 57% of bottles are collected for recycling, compared to up to 90% in other countries where there is a deposit return scheme.

Therefore much of the plastic waste 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 Agency (?) said.

I would like, just for a few moments, 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.

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 fibres have been found in creatures at the bottom of the deepest trench in the ocean.


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. 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 13] 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 – two thirds of clothing is made from synthetic material, according to a report by Eunomia. 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

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: Sep 2017.  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/08/sea-salt-around-world-contaminated-by-plastic-studies  The most common type of plastic they found was polyethylene terephthalate, the material used to make plastic bottles.

(28th Dec 2019 Damian Carrington): Microplastic in the rain:

Four cities have been assessed, and the particles have been found everywhere especially in London. Research published in Environment International, led by Stephanie Wright of Kings College London. Problem is, we don’t know much at all about effects... Collected on rooftops and deposition rates ranged from 575 to 1,008 pieces per sq metre per day. 15 different types of plastic were identified. Most were acrylic, from e.g. clothing. London has a rate 7 times higher than Paris and three times Hamburg. Particles were between 0.02mmand 0.5mm – large enough to reach the airways and into saliva.

One study says people consume at least 50,000 microplastic particles a year.

About 335mtonnes of new plastic is produced each year.

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.



Update: https://www.ecowatch.com/seafood-study-plastic-contamination-2646982206.html?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3

A new study of five different kinds of seafood revealed traces of plastic in every sample tested.

Researchers bought raw samples of popular seafood from a market in Australia, including 10 oysters, 10 farmed tiger prawns, 10 wild squid, five wild blue crab and 10 wild sardines, reported Daily Mail. At least trace levels of plastic contamination were found in each, with the highest content found in sardines, according to the research.

The scientists used a new technique to identify and measure five different types of plastics contained within the tissues of each sample of seafood simultaneously, reported Intrafish. They did so in order to better understand the potential harm microplastics in seafood could have on human health, lead author Francisca Ribeiro said in a University of Queensland press release.

The study, published by the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland in Environmental Science & Technology, found greatly varying amounts of plastic in each of the different types of seafood tested as well as in the individual species, said a University of Exeter press release.

"From the edible marine species tested, sardines had the highest plastic content, which was a surprising result," Riberio told the University of Queensland. "Another interesting aspect was the diversity of microplastic types found among species, with polyethylene predominant in fish and polyvinyl chloride the only plastic detected in oysters."


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.

 (12th Sep. 2019). Microplastics: seem to harm earthworms, as their weight suffers a decrease. Worms placed in soil loaded for 30 days with high density polyethylene (HDPE) lost about 3% of their bodyweight, whereas worms in soil without PDPE gained 5%. Lead author: Bas Roots, Anglia Ruskin University, in Environmental Science and Technology. Possible explanation: obstruction or irritation of the digestive tract. The worms (especially rosy-tipped earthworm, Apporectodea rosea) are vital in agriculture.

European studies have found anything between 700 and 4,000 plastic particles per kilogram of soil in some agricultural land.

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 14]


The report comes from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which has 132 government members. 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). “This loss is a direct result of human activity…” [slide 15]


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. ”


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.

An example: Manila in the Phillipines, where there are ‘recycling plants’ among the houses. The inhabitants suffer from fumes choking them:


[slide 19]

Update on China: (20th Jan 2020). From Ecowatch, Olivia Rosane, 20th Jan 2020.

China, the world's No. 1 producer of plastic pollution, announced major plans Sunday to cut back on the sale and production of single-use plastics.

According to the plans put forward by the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, plastic bags will be banned in major cities by the end of 2020 and in smaller cities and towns by 2022, Reuters reported. (Markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables will have until 2025 to phase out the bags).

(The commission said it was enacting the changes in order to protect public health and "to build a beautiful China," CNN reported.

The plan targets a variety of plastic types and industries over the next five years, BBC News reported. Other measures include:

The plan also calls for the phaseout of plastic takeaway items and shipping packages, Reuters reported. The government also announced Sunday it would work to create recycling programs and promote the use of recycled plastics, according to CNN.

"It's the first time Beijing has recognised single-use plastics as a major problem and specified the urgent necessity to significantly reduce them," Greenpeace tweeted in response to the announcement.

China did ban retailers from giving away free plastic bags in 2008, and also banned the production of ultra-thin bags, BBC News reported.

China is the world's largest manufacturer of plastic, according to CNN. It is also the world's leading producer of plastic waste, according to the University of Oxford's Our World in Data.   It produced 60 million tonnes (approximately 66 million U.S. tons) in 2010, followed by the U.S., which produced 38 million tonnes (approximately 42 U.S. tons). However, on a per capita basis, the average Chinese person discards one-fourth to one-half of the plastic waste discarded by the average U.S. resident.)

But because China has a much larger population, the tossing of plastic waste has become a major problem for its infrastructure and environment, overwhelming its landfills and polluting its rivers. China's largest dump is around the size of 100 soccer fields and is already at capacity, 25 years before planned, BBC News reported. And the Yangtze River dumps more plastic into the oceans than any other river in the world, according to CNN.

Around eight million metric tons of plastic enter the world's oceans every year, where they pose a major threat to marine life. China is the leading contributor to the kind of mismanaged plastic waste that is the most likely to end up in the oceans, generating around 28 percent of the world's total, according to Our World in Facts. Asia as a whole is the region that produces the most mismanaged waste, but other countries in the area are also taking steps to combat the problem. Thailand banned plastic bags at major stores this year; Bali in Indonesia banned single-use plastics; and Jakarta, the country's capital, will ban plastic bags by June 2020, BBC News reported.

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.’

(Updates: June 2019: where has all the plastic gone?


June 2019, plastics, recycling & the global south: https://leftfootforward.org/2019/06/the-war-over-where-your-recyling-goes/

Aug 2019. Waste/recycling: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-recycling-myth-what-really-happens-your-rubbish )


17th May 2019. (Ben Smee) A million shoes among debris on beaches of the Cocos (Keeling ) Islands (popn. 600):

There were 414m pieces of plastic, weighing 238 tonnes. Published in Nature, marine scientists found 977,000 shoes and 373,000 toothbrushes on these Indian Ocean islands. The islands are Australian, and 800 miles south-west of Jakarta.

It is now estimated there are 5.25tn pieces of ocean plastic debris, says Annett Finger from Victoria University and co-author of the report..

There is an exponential increase in plastic pollution. Much of the waste was buried and previous surveys may have underestimated quantities if they only took the surface waste into account.

There are more problems with the recycling industry: [slide 20]

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 21]: international...

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 EU and UK [slide 22]

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

27th Dec 2019 Italian ski resort (Pejo 3000) in Val di Sole, Trentino has banned plastic after a study found 131m – 162m plastic particles in the surface of one of the largest glaciers in the Italian Alps. The Pejo valley has hydroelectric plants and wood-chip heating from local forestry operations.

Our own government aims to phase out non-recyclable packaging in the next 25 years.

The fact that microbeads were banned soon after the public became aware of them is a sign that action can be taken.

A tax on plastic? 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:


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!

9.5 Discussion of various schemes to reduce plastic use: [slide 23]

13th April 2019. Letters from: Maddy Haughton-Boakes, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Richard Ali, Paper Cup Alliance.

The deposit charge on carrier bags has been shown to work, since these now comprise only 1% of the pollution, .


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’.


Producers should be liable for the costs of dealing with packaging, say the CPRE.


Paper cups for hot drinks are a well-known problem, because they are lined with plastic (polyethylene). But the coating on paper cups can be ‘easily separated from the paper using water, although there are only five cup recycling plants across the UK that are already doing this, and it is said they have the capacity to deal with all paper cups used..

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.’

8th April 2019. (Fiona Harvey) According to the Plastic Rivers report, from Earthwatch Europe and Plastic Oceans UK:

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. About 80% of plastic rubbish flows into the oceans from rivers. We need to focus on cleaning up rivers, some say, while we deal with our dependence on throwaway plastic. The report looked at macroplastic in fresh water, and excluded fishing gear (which RSPCA says kills birdlife). It also excluded items from farming and industry, to concentrate on consumers’ contributions.

8th April 2019. 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%....

Links to Greenpeace action on plastics, especially with reference to Sainsbury’s:

] Greenpeace: Sainsbury's April Fools 
[2] Greenpeace names and shames Sainsbury's in plastic packaging spat
[3] Greenpeace: 'online, offline this April fools is not going well for Sainsbury’s'
[4] Greenpeace: supermarket plastic league table

31st Aug. 2019. M & S to remove glitter from Christmas cards, wrapping paper calendars and crackers. Aims to be 100% plastic free by end 2020. Most glitter is made from aluminium bonded to polyethylene terephthalate. Trillions of microplastic particles have been found in the oceans.  M & S have removed 1,000 tonnes of plastic packaging from its business. Waitrose, Tesco and Aldi are taking similar action. (Sarah Butler).

29th Oct 2019. The store John Lewis has stopped selling 5p single-use plastic bags at its Oxford store so as to encourage reduce reuse and return. Over a year this could save 5 tonnes of plastic. Sales of 5p bags had fallen by 30% since the charge was introduced, but they still sold 11.5m last year! Other incentives had been introduced at the same store (see elsewhere).

Recycling: 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.

14th Oct 2019demand for used plastic could cause recycling costs to soar (Jillian Ambrose): Recycled plastic flakes have in recent months become more expensive than virgin plastic for the first time. Report from S & G Global Platts – recycled plastic costs an extra £57 a tonne. Trend is driven in part by growing demand for recycled plastic in new products. New plastic is becoming cheaper because of the US shale boom. Smaller manufacturers may be forced to go back to using new plastic (harder for large companies to do this). Packaging manufacturers are under pressure to reduce the amount of new plastic used: Coca Cola aims to cut the amount in its soft drink bottles by 50% within the next two years. UK is planning to tax companies that do not use at least 30% recycled plastic in their products. Experts are calling for govt to support plans to increase the amount of recycled plastic in the market – e.g. incentives for new recycling plants, or importing flakes from Latin America.

(28th Nov 2019 Sandra Laville): more ‘bags for life’ means bigger plastic footprint for supermarkets:

Research from Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace shows footprint is rising. In 2018 supermarkets put out 903,000 tonnes of plastic packaging – an increase of 17,000 tonnes from 2017. This includes now 1.5bn ‘bags for life’ – 54 per household, a 26% increase (over previous year?). EIA calls for a ban on them. Some customers are simply getting bags for life as a substitute for single-use bags.

 (15th Jan. 2020 Zoe Wood): Colgate is launching toothpaste in a recyclable tube. Consumers get through 20bn tubes every year. New brand is ‘Smile for Good’. Certified by vegan society as cruelty-free. Made from HDPE (high density polyethylene), the plastic used in milk bottles. But it is six times as expensive as regular tubes. Colgate aiming at a circular economy... Colgate has also said all its packaging will be recyclable by 2025.

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, because there are other significant contributions to CO2 besides road traffic.

Biodegradable plastic:

17th April 2019. Letter from Michael Stephen, Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association.

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.

 [slide 24]:

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.

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.


Conclusion: [slide 25]

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”.