Plastic waste has been a hot topic for several years now, and rightly so. Unfortunately, while there are very few of us who do not know that plastic is a huge destructive force in our global environment, there does not seem to be much being done on an individual and business level to tackle the problem.
Here are some facts and figures about plastic waste in the United Kingdom. I’ll give you a warning – a lot of these numbers are genuinely scary.
Plastic Production, Usage and Waste
In the 1950s, annual plastic production on a global scale sat at around 1.5 million tons. Since then, the figure has increased to 381 million tonnes in 2015.
- In 2017, humans produced over 300 million tons of plastic worldwide
- The amount of plastic produced every year is roughly equivalent to the weight of the entire human race
- The total plastic production between 1950 and today is estimated at around 9.2 billion metric tons
- In the UK, around 4.9 million metric tons of plastic is introduced to the market every year
- Of that total, roughly 75% becomes waste
- Per person, that is approximately 35.52kg of plastic waste generated per year in the UK
- The USA is the world's largest producer of plastic waste, the UK is second
- China is the largest producer of single-use plastics
- In 2019, UK was the fourth largest producer of single-use plastic waste per capita, with 44 kilograms per person
||Plastic Waste Generated Per Person (KG)
Source: The Plastic Waste Makers Index by The Mindaroo Foundation (2019)
Single-Use Plastic = Multiple Problems
Single use plastic is usually made mainly from petrochemicals (fossil fuels), and the products are designed to be used once and then disposed of. Major products that fit this category are plastic bags, bottles, Styrofoam and drinking straws.
In the UK, a 2020 survey of local governments found that:
- 2,290,000 tonnes of plastic packaging were introduced to the market
- Of that, 1,447,000 tonnes were consumed at the household level
- There were 643,000 tonnes of plastic bottles
- There were also 494,000 tonnes of plastic pots, tubs, trays and other plastic packaging
- 311,000 tonnes were plastic film
When it comes to the collection of that plastic, the rates in 2020 (according to that same survey) were:
- 59% for plastic bottles
- 33% for the other plastic packaging types
- 7% for plastic film
- 39% total collection rate
Plastic (not) Fantastic
Here’s an interesting fact: you may have heard that ‘every piece of plastic that was ever produced, still exists’. This is not actually true – some plastics are routinely incinerated (not exactly good for the environment) and some modern plastics, like polylactic acid sheets, are designed to degrade fairly quickly. It is true, however, that most plastic takes a long time to degrade – up to 450 years for a plastic bottle in a landfill, for example.
That might not be the worst though – a plastic bag in the ocean breaks up in around 20 years, in part from the sunlight and in part from the constant motion/friction/impact. The plastic does not decompose in this situation, though – it is often ingested by sea life. The statistics regarding plastics in the ocean are as follows:
In the UK specifically:
- For every 100 metres of UK beach, there are 718 pieces of rubbish
Microplastics, Massive Problems
So, plastic does not decay or decompose like other materials, but what does happen? Disintegration happens, resulting in something you may have more and more about recently: microplastics. This is a scientific term for when plastic disintegrates into particles that are smaller than five millimetres – at which point they can be easily ingested by any number of lifeforms (including us). Here are the details:
- Microplastics have already been found in fish and seafood, salt, sugar, and beer
This study suggests microplastics could traverse the blood-brain barrier, and the placenta (so you could have plastic in your brain, or be passing plastic through to your unborn baby)
- Microplastics have been found ‘deep in the lungs’ of surgical patients
- They have also been found in donated blood at a rate of 1.6 micrograms of plastic per millilitre of blood
- It has been conclusively found that microplastics can carry parasites, germs and other disease-bearing microorganisms
- If you are reading this article indoors, you are more than likely breathing in plastic
- Outdoors is not much better
Recycling is Rubbish
Plastic recycling is, in principle, reasonably effective – you take the used plastic and make something new from it. Unfortunately, we don’t do it enough. Less than 10% of the UK’s plastic packaging is currently recycled. As consumers, though, we are not entirely to blame here – we simply have too much plastic to recycle. What happens then? We either burn it, or we export it to other countries:
Supermarkets have a massive impact on plastic use and waste in this country. From the products they sell through to the way we carry those products home, plastic is in almost everything. Here’s the data:
- The plastic bag tax, where consumers were forced to pay for a plastic bag, was introduced in the UK in 2015
- In 2014, 7.6 billion plastic bags were given to supermarket shoppers
- That equates to about 140 per person, and 61,000 tons of waste
- In 2019, the number of bags issued was down to 564 million – a reduction of more than 7 billion bags per year
In 2018, a study by Greenpeace UK and the Environmental Investigation Agency found that:
- Tesco were accountable for 261,204 tonnes of single use plastic packaging
- Sainsbury’s were to blame for 119,764 tonnes
- Morrison’s were third with 100,155 tonnes
To be clear – those number are roughly equivalent to the relative market share of each supermarket, so Tesco are not necessarily twice as bad as Sainsbury’s.
What can we do about Plastic?
So, what can we do? Firstly – keep recycling. It is not as effective as it could be (at present) but is still a valuable tool in the fight against plastic waste. Adopting some of the following tips and tricks will also help:
- Prepare – have a portable cutlery set and metal straw with you in your bag or car, and carry around a re-usable carrier bag or two
- Shop local – your local butcher, baker, and greengrocer are less likely to use excessive plastic packaging
- Don’t use straws – there has been a shift toward cardboard straws recently: don’t forget that you can just not use a straw at all
- Take a mug – going to a coffee shop? Take a mug or container with you and they will use that instead of Styrofoam
- Be thoughtful – every little change helps. Replace the blade in your razor instead of throwing away the whole thing, avoid disposable lighters, etc
- Don’t sparkle – glitter is a ready-made microplastic, so do away with it
- Stop chewing gum – the UK is the second biggest global chewing gum consumer. The vast majority of chewing gum is made from plastic, so either stop chewing or move to a non-plastic brand
- Bring back milk deliveries – the milkman (or woman) will bring you fresh milk to your door in a glass bottle. Then, they will take away the bottle, clean and sterilise it and use it again. Perfect.