Plastic Fantastic?

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

I’ve just ordered a filter coffee for 50p (using my reusable coffee cup of course) and look around me at other customers.

Their trays are laden with bottled water, salads in cardboard boxes (with a cellophane window), plastic wrapped wraps and look down at my bircher muesli. Why does it have to be so difficult to NOT have plastic, particularly when buying food!? But here we are, surrounded by single-use plastics; an emblem of our throw-away culture, yet trying to make conscious decisions to escape it.

But who actually has the responsibility to stop this? Is it the consumer or do we actually have to look further afield?

Single-use plastic; these three words strike fear into the hearts of even the most environmentally oblivious millennial; and then for those of us who are environmentally savvy… I think the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up… And for good reason.

Before I begin though, let me make it clear, plastic is not the sole enemy in our sights here. Well, not entirely anyway.

In many ways we all are! You, me, big business, small business, speed, greed, carelessness and a general Laissez-faire laziness & lack of consequences.

Plastic is the same great material that holds hearts together, get's humankind into the stratosphere and gives children with blown off legs a chance to walk again.

Plastic isn't the bad guy, It's just lost its value in the great big filthy rat race to produce cheaper and cheaper and cheaper products.

Every year, approximately 8 million tonnes of land-based plastic enters into the world’s oceans; plastic bags get swallowed by marine life, birds get caught in plastic six-pack rings, fish fill their stomachs with micro plastics.

The impact on animals and the environment is devastating. Yet often we only look so far as the end product.

The majority of conventional plastic is made from fossil fuels; a product of the incredulous oil and gas industry.

Plastics are made from a variety of elements including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine and sulphur; all of which are commonly found in oil, natural gas, or coal – our finite resources.

Plastic is produced by breaking down individual components in these fossil fuels, and chemically re-bonding them into synthetic polymers.

This process not only requires large amounts of energy (mostly produced from non-renewable resources) but often requires chemicals that are harmful to the environment. Whilst a plastic bottle might break down in a relatively short amount of time, the micro plastics (one of the biggest pollutants of oceans) that it decomposes into can take thousands of years to be removed from the environment.

The production of glass is much less chemically intensive. It is made from heating sand (silicon dioxide) to extremely high temperatures to form a liquid.

Once it is molten it can be shaped and moulded into the desired shape, and then cooled. Whilst this process is energy intensive (to achieve the high temperatures), this does not incur the same effects that fossil fuel collection creates.

Considering that glass is made from sand, it fortunately does not contain any harmful chemicals such as BPA which is susceptible to leaching after continuous use.

This means that a glass bottle can last much longer than its plastic counterpart, and has the possibility of being used over and over again.

Whilst a large proportion of the population, particularly in the UK, are becoming more ‘woke;’ to the issues of plastic production, it is expected that production of polyethylene (used in plastic production) is set to increase by up to 75% by 2022.

This increase is due to the increase in demand for disposable plastics used in soft drinks and packaging in developing countries.

It is not just the UK that is affected by this production; hundreds of thousands of tons of our plastic waste ends up in poorer countries. Malaysia has become the largest receiver of UK plastic waste and receives approximately 95,000 tons.

These countries do not have the infrastructure in place to deal with such large quantities

of waste which is one of the reasons why so much rubbish enters into the ecosystem.

Whilst there have been large steps towards widespread, and efficient recycling in the UK by councils, the recycling process is not as clean as we might initially think it is.

The process itself is in fact extremely intensive, and the sorting process is not infallible.

Plastic can be recycled only a limited number of times, and plastics require a difficult recycling process; instead of separating different types of plastic, it is sometimes easier for the recycling plant to send it to landfill.

In addition, only 58% of our plastic bottles are recycled; the plastic that is not recycled is needlessly burned or ends up dumped in landfill.

The World Bank has predicted that the planet’s growing heap of rubbish is

expected to increase by 70% in the next 30 years.

This is an expansion that current disposal infrastructure is not able to keep up with. Rather than recycling a plastic, or glass bottle for that matter, after use; it might be worth reusing it multiple times, washing it out and topping it up with water, milk, juice; anything that can fit really!

There are continuous ways to move above the ‘doom and gloom’ notion that there is little we can do as we can see an increased global savviness towards the impact of plastic use.

For example, the European Commission has begun to implement strategies to reduce plastic pollution in and ensure that all plastic in Europe is recyclable by 2030. In addition to this, the UN Environment Program has started a global campaign to reduce marine debris cause by micro plastics and single use plastics by 2022.

These aims are also reflected in the efforts being made by large supermarkets to become more ‘plastic free’, the dramatic increase in zero-waste shops is also a sign of a step in the right direction.

By now I’ve finished my bircher, drunk my coffee, and chastised myself for judging the ‘indie kid’ in the tweed jacket who just bought a bottle of water.

It may be grim out there but even in the swamp, the ripples cannot go unnoticed and I inwardly commend the elderly lady opposite me who brought a tote bag to put her sandwich in and chose not to opt for plastic cutlery.

It’s the small acts that need to be commended.

If you do use disposable cutlery, just for forks sake, throw it in the recycling. (Sorry)

Most words: Alice Harrison: M*lklady