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5 min read

what's the problem with plastic?

written by Liz Tabron

updated 10.11.2021

plastic pollution and recycling

Plastic - it’s certainly hard to imagine a world without it right? It does have some valuable uses, but the truth of the matter is our planet is drowning in plastic pollution. Plastic is literally everywhere, it’s in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink, and the impact it’s having on our environment, wildlife and marine life is devastating.

Every minute an astonishing one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased and five trillion single use plastic bags are used globally each year. If that’s not bad enough, half of all plastic produced has been created to be used just once and then simply discarded, with less than 10% of plastic actually being recycled, so it’s not hard to imagine the enormous scale of plastic pollution. However, there is a global campaign to help gain control of plastic waste, which is one of the fastest-growing environmental causes. Read on to discover more hard-hitting plastic facts, how it enters the environment and what’s being done to tackle plastic pollution.

how does plastic harm the environment?

Many of us have seen those truly awful and heartbreaking scenes on BBC’s Blue Planet II of how plastic is having severe consequences on marine life, which is just one of the ways it’s causing harm to our environment. Whether it’s in the rivers, oceans or on land, plastic can persist in the environment for centuries. 

The problem with plastic is that it’s made with highly durable properties, making it extremely difficult to break down. In fact it never really does break down, it just gets smaller over time, leading to plastic particles that end up being mistaken for food and ingested by fish and wildlife. These particles have also been found in tap water! Plastic waste clogs sewers too and provides a breeding ground for pests and mosquitoes. It even increases the transmission of diseases such as malaria.

If we keep on using and discarding plastic in the way we are doing, by the year 2050, there could be more of it in the ocean than fish and the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil usage. That’s another problem with plastic, 99% of it comes from oil, natural gas and coal - all non-renewable resources, and with a colossal 300 million tonnes of the stuff being produced every year, it’s clear to see a massive change needs to happen in order to protect our precious planet.

how does plastic enter our environment?

Researchers have estimated that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, with a staggering 60% of that ending up in landfill or in the natural environment. But how exactly does it enter our environment and oceans? The world’s rivers provide a direct route for plastic waste to travel from inland to the sea, making them a major contributor to ocean pollution, with 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the sea each year. Once plastic is in the rivers and oceans, it’s very difficult to recover and simply builds up, covering the seafloor and accumulating in ocean ecosystems.

how long does plastic take to decompose?

Depending upon the type and exposure to sunlight, plastic waste can take between 20 to 500 years to decompose. For example, it’s estimated that it takes 450 years for plastic bottles to decompose in a landfill site and styrofoam can take 500 years!

Plastic is broken down through photodegradation - a process where UV radiation from the sun breaks down plastic into smaller pieces, but landfill makes this very difficult to achieve, unless it is deliberately exposed to the sun to help accelerate the process. Plastic waste that isn’t recycled or doesn’t reach landfill, ends up in the oceans, which is where photodegradation happens quicker, breaking it down into microplastics and ultimately leading to the harming of marine life.

what are the different types of single-use plastic?

There are many types of single-use plastic items that are used everyday, without any thought as to where they end up, these include drink straws and stirrers, bottle caps, food wrappers and cigarette butts, which contain tiny plastic fibres. Here’s the various types of plastic, which are literally everywhere:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) - a form of polyester that’s moulded and used for plastic bottles, dispensing containers and biscuit trays.

  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) - the most environmentally stable plastic used for shampoo bottles, milk bottles and freezer bags.

  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) - a soft, lightweight and flexible plastic used for food packaging film and grocery bags.

  • Polypropylene (PP) - a thermoplastic used for crisp bags and bottle caps.

  • Polystyrene (PS) - a naturally transparent thermoplastic used for disposable cups and styrofoam packaging.

  • Expanded polystyrene (EPS) - a white foam plastic material used for protective packaging and insulation panels.

what’s being done to tackle plastic pollution?

Over the past 10 years, governments around the world have adopted policies that help to reduce the use of disposable plastic. For example, most countries in Africa have a complete ban on the production and use of plastic bags and Greenpeace demands that big corporations take responsibility for the plastic pollution crisis by ending single-use plastic and packaging.

Silentnight is helping to tackle plastic pollution with their Eco Comfort range of duvets, pillows and mattresses - with fillings made in the UK from recycled plastic, including bottles. The Eco Comfort range has so far prevented the equivalent of 525 million plastic bottles entering the ocean. In addition to this, Silentnight also works in partnership with the Marine Conservation Society to help ensure the oceans are protected from further plastic pollution.

Some individual steps that you can take towards reducing plastic waste include, using a reusable water bottle, taking canvas bags out with you when you go shopping, removing plastic from nature when you’re out and about and also cutting out plastic items at home by opting for alternatives made from natural materials.

To help tackle plastic pollution, we must continue to reduce, reuse, recycle and repurpose.

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