Let’s talk plastic pollution, probably THE environmental news story of recent months. Plastic literally can choke the life out of wildlife. Restrict their growth. Starve them. Maybe even poison them (and us).
The UK Prime Minister herself recently compared our current rate of expulsion of plastic waste to that of our previous use and abuse of chemical substances. And as we throw out our plastics with gay abandon and very little concern as to what effect it may have on the environment, it is reminiscent of a time when DDT was sprayed willy-nilly around the home, or Thalidomide was given to pregnant women, without a thought as to what impact it might have. Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?
Plastic, by nature doesn’t break down quickly. It is a polymer, basically large molecules made up of lots of small molecules (monomers) joined together. Polymers are unreactive, and generally not biodegradable, and it’s these properties that make plastic so useful to us as a material, it’s not going to react with water, the air, your food, or start rotting (if like me, you forget your Tupperware is in the boot of your car for a few weeks). But these properties also make it persistent in the environment, in the ocean it gets caught in gyres (circular currents) creating large “garbage patches”. Animals get caught in it, mistake it for food, and the effect of chemicals it may contain and microplastics are cause for concern for the wider ecosystem.
Just yesterday there was a news story about how second hand toys may be bad for children due to the content of hazardous elements like bromine, cadmium and lead in older plastics. There are concerns about industrial pollutants affecting large predators such as pilot whales, with microplastics potentially playing a role. Bisphenol-A (BPA) has also (understandably) received its fair share of media attention. It is a compound in some plastics like food containers and baby bottles (many of which are reusable). In high doses BPA may cause health issues, it is known to mimic oestrogen and is an endocrine (hormone) disruptor.
At present food standards agencies have concluded that the level of exposure from food contact materials is much less than that which would be considered harmful. The fate of BPA in the environment is less clear, with some species more affected than others and concerns around long-term low-level exposure and bioaccumulation (where exposure increases as you move up a food chain). Studies into the biological effects of plastics are ongoing and the European Food Standards Agency are set to review the toxicity of BPA in 2018.
Of course along side the upturn in media coverage, have been excellent campaigns and petitions and general awareness of what plastic can do to the environment. Charities like the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and campaigns like Refill have worked tirelessly to spread the message. The UN World Environment Day has also recently announced its 2018 theme will be plastic pollution.
In the last few years the message about the effects of plastic have resulted in huge steps forward. In UK so far plastic straws have been removed from many businesses, micro beads have been banned, A 5p charge on plastic bags has been imposed, taxes have been proposed and brands have vowed to go plastic free. There is a news story pretty much every day around plastic waste and the issues it can cause.
In addition Blue Planet II, the visually stunning and informative nature programme produced by the BBC, has recently brought the issue of plastic in the ocean to the forefront of everyone’s (unless of course, you live under a rock) consciousness by highlighting the sheer scale of the problem, from effects of microplastics, to Albatross on South Georgia (one of the most remote areas on the planet) dying because they have ingested plastic.
The response to plastic pollution is an excellent example of the positive effect the media can have when it chooses to (that and when Sir David Attenborough tells you to do something, you do it). Blue Planet II has also just won the National Television Awards Impact Award, a testament to the sheer amount of influence and positive impact the programme has had.
Yet there’s still a way to go. Single use plastic is still hard to avoid on a day to day basis, there is so much unnecessary packaging, fruit, veg and snacks in plastic bags, meat and soft fruit in plastic trays covered with film, plastic bottles and containers, disposable cutlery, coffee pods and the list goes on… With China recently announcing a ban on imports of certain wastes, including plastics, a whole new waste management issue also faces many nations, including the UK, we ship two-thirds of our waste there, including 2.7 million tonnes of plastic since 2012.
Plastic pollution is also not our only environmental issue, but it is certainly flavour of the month. Some have expressed concern over the amount of press surrounding plastic waste and questioned the validity of some of the alternatives, after all these also do come with a carbon footprint. What we don’t want is people slinging ALL of their plastics and only exacerbating the waste issue in the short term, replacing plastic with carbon intensive alternatives, or indeed people simply tiring of the incessant press. Just this week I have heard people refer to the campaigns and company pledges as “jumping on the bandwagon”, even a student of mine (a keen biologist!) recently refered to the media coverage as “overkill”.
In a perfect world the media would have a responsibility to provide a balanced argument, not always focus on scare tactics, provide suggestions for improvement and not overshadow other issues of concern. But as someone who has worked in the environment sector for years, it’s great just to see SOMETHING happening, and especially such an issue getting so much mainstream media coverage.
This post by The Zero Waster is a very interesting read, comparing plastic with some of its alternatives, I don’t fully agree with all of the points made in the post, but it’s certainly food for thought. More emissions are involved in transporting heavier containers. Metals, glass, paper and cardboard can be energy intensive (and use hazardous chemicals) to produce. But let’s not also forget that most plastic is produced from oil, a finite resource. Not to mention that it is multi-billion pound, highly polluting industry that poses barriers to the development of sustainability globally (perhaps a topic for another day…).
It is important to remember that pretty much everything we do has a carbon footprint and associated pollution, and we need to reduce our impact everywhere we can. With plastics the key focus in the short term should really be on refusing single-use… if you must use them, recycle as much as possible. If you have reusable plastics – reuse them, replace them with suitable alternatives when (if) they wear out. If BPA bothers you, check your products before you chuck them (hopefully in the recycling), many are now BPA free. There are plenty of blogs and articles that provide suggestions and inspiration for alternatives.
Let’s all keep up the momentum, put pressure on companies and governments. Boycott that product. Support that campaign. Sign that petition. Give innovators a chance to develop suitable alternatives. Don’t forget the other issues.
Keep. It. Moving.
I for one am firmly on the bandwagon, and it may not be perfect, but this bandwagon is huge and hurtling towards us all at a rate of knots… and that can only be a good thing.