Plastic is big.
It’s in our offices and living rooms, our kitchens and bathrooms, theatres and restaurants, our clothes. It’s wrapped around our food. We eat off it, sit on it, sometimes use it to clean ourselves, and sleep on it. The word “plastic” in fact comes from the Greek word plastikos which means capable of being shaped, and it’s come to shape our world as much as we’ve shaped it. Where we might have once used materials like glass, metal and wood we often now use plastic.
- Plastics are on the rise, from 225 million tonnes to 311 million tonnes produced globally over 10 years. And that’s up from 15 million tonnes 50 years ago in 1964. 59 million tonnes of this came from Europe.
- Plastic is useful because it’s a highly durable and flexible material that can be put to a lot of purposes, and it’s relatively financially cheap and easy to produce.
- It’s a problem because most of it isn’t biodegradable, and although most of it is photodegradable (which means it decomposes by the action of light, rather than bacteria or organisms) not all of it can actually degrade. When it can, it’s a long process.
- If it can degrade, it takes hundreds of years. Even though it gets worn and torn into and smaller smaller pieces, the actual breakdown of compounds into something the environment can deal with takes hundreds of years. For example, plastic bags can take between 200 and 1,000 years to degrade.
- Plastic can leach out its own chemicals as well as absorb other toxins like pesticides.
- It stays in the environment, damaging ecosystems and the plants and animals that live in that system - and it’s worth remembering that humans rely on and live in those systems too.
- Our oceans have major problems with plastic pollution because that’s where a lot of rubbish ends up going, whether its deliberately dumped there or because of rain and rivers carrying waste into the sea as the water system runs its natural course. Our oceans cover 72% of the Earth and supply half of our oxygen, regulate the climate, and have held the water that comes out of your tap.
- It’s produced from the fossil fuel crude oil, a limited resource that took millions of years to form and which we’re using up faster than it could possibly renew.
- In 2014 the UK produced a total of 26,797 tonnes of waste, including plastics. The overall recycling rate across the four countries was 44.9%, an increase from 2010 when the recycling rate was 40.4%. The current EU target is for the UK to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2010.
The plastic industry is huge. To give you a sense of it, in the UK alone:
- there are over 180,000 direct jobs in the industry
- it has a £19 billion annual turnover
- there are 7,500 companies in the plastics sector
- 35% of the plastic products are exported (with a value of £67 billion)
- 5 million tonnes of plastic raw materials are produced annually.
The organisation Reuse This Bag have pulled together a great infographic that outlines some of the major problems with plastic.