Plastics are polymers of hydrocarbons, with many practical applications in modern society. Most are hard-wearing and durable. However, plastic pollution is a major issue among environmentalists. Plastic is present in a huge variety of products, and much plastic finds its way into the oceans and even into drinking water and the food chain. This leads many people to see plastic pollution as an environmental catastrophe requiring urgent action.
There is a movement by people to live plastic-free lives. While reducing unnecessary waste is sensible, if taken literally this can be carried to extremes. Many claims of plastic-free living don't really exclude all plastic, merely calling for reductions - this may be considered sensible or deceptive depending on your point of view. There are also claims by people or places to be "plastic free", which should be taken with a pinch of salt (preferably packaged in waterproof plastic). Campaigning group Surfers Against Sewage say of their Plastic-Free Communities campaign: "It's not about removing all plastic from our lives. It’s about kicking our addiction to avoidable single-use plastic". Most people will want to balance a desire to save plastic with a desire to avoid other environmental impacts and to avoid debt and bankruptcy. But it isn't always clear where the lines should be drawn.
- 1 Dangers of plastic waste
- 2 Specific plastics
- 3 Reducing plastic
- 4 Alternative solutions
- 5 References
Dangers of plastic waste
Statistics and types of pollution
Since plastic became widely used, 8.3 billion metric tonnes has been made and 6.3 billion tons of this has been discarded as waste. About 12% of plastic waste is burned but the vast majority ends up in landfill where it can linger for hundreds of years before it decays.
As well as concern about the amount of plastic going to landfill, there is special concern about plastic waste in the oceans which rather than sitting in landfill drifts around. 8 million metric tonnes (18 billion lb) of plastic enters the ocean per year.
Some of this exists in the form of incredibly huge ocean gyres as big as a country. A study of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, between Hawaii and California, found that it contained 79,000 metric tonnes, of which 46% was fishing nets and much of the rest other fishing waste; 20% of the debris came from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
Rubbish enters the marine environment in various ways: discarded directly into sea or into rivers which empty into the sea; from sewers (failure to process/filter); lines, floats, and nets from fishing boats; tsunamis sweeping debris out to sea; lost cargoes that accidentally fall off boats or are scattered by shipwrecks; from landfill which has been scattered or leached out; etc.
In popular environmental arguments it is common to confuse marine pollution (stuff floating in the sea) and beach pollution (a mix of things beachgoers have dropped and stuff washed up from the sea). Because of the difficulty in measuring pollution, only a small region will generally be studied. Because of this it is necessary to be careful when extrapolating from an individual study to larger policy recommendations. These conflicting figures are often used for political purposes: for instance if you want to ban plastic bags, go to a beach in the middle of summer and count the plastic, most of which will have been dropped by recent visitors; if you want to foreground pollution from ships, go into the middle of the ocean in winter.
Effects on humans
It is suggested that ingesting food containing minute plastic products may be bad for you. A study in Vienna announced in 2018 found evidence of microplastics in human stools, suggesting that plastic was being consumed in food. Plastic fibres have also been found in drinking water from taps.
Although there is evidence from lab studies that consuming plastic can damage some animals, there is as yet no evidence of harm in humans.
Effects on animals
There is evidence that plastic causes damage to individual organisms, although there is not evidence that it causes population-level damage.
Some plastics are singled out by activists as especially evil.
These are a particularly obvious thing because nobody needs to drink through straws. Except disabled people who can't lift a glass to their mouth. The simplest solution is for bars and restaurants to only give them out if you ask for one. Since many are used for stirring mixed drinks, you can also substitute for a wooden or other recyclable drink stirrer, or a spoon which can be washed and reused.
There are dire warnings of environmental damage from drinking straws. However this may be taking things out of proportion. There has been wild exaggeration of amount of plastic straws in the ocean, with a claim that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day. This statistic has been debunked as something made up by a 9 year old kid.
As well as environmental issues, there are separate concerns that straws cause gas (indigestion), wrinkles, and tooth decay.
Tiny plastic particles, with uses such as as abrasives, are particularly damaging to the environment because they are typically passed through drains and into oceans; as yet sewage plants do not filter them out.
Liquid soap and handwash and shampoo are a new bete noire, because they are often packaged in plastic bottles, and people don't often recycle the plastic. In contrast, bar soap can be packaged in paper or card (although it isn't always). While reducing the use of plastic bottles is good, this can also be done by taking plastic bottles to stores that will refill them with liquid soap. Bar soap can be harsher than liquid detergents due to its higher pH, requiring the use of moisturiser, which itself probably comes in a plastic tub or bottle, so beware.
Another thing which attracts the ire of anti-plastic warriors is vegetables that are wrapped in plastic. Again, a laudable thing, but it ignores a few facts. Firstly, even loose veg probably arrives at your store wrapped in plastic - it's just that the staff take it out of a bag before putting it on display. Second, you often get people ranting about fruit and veg that is peeled and chopped and placed in a plastic bag, but this is useful for the elderly and other people whose motor skills don't let them chop onions etc. Due to the high price of pre-chopped vs unprepared, it's unlikely that many people buy them except for a good reason.
Today a lot of stores manufacture cheap clothes which last for a short period of time before they (a) go out of style and (b) fall apart. These clothes are only one-step up from the futuristic dream of wear-once-and-throw-away paper clothes. They can be considered very wasteful, whether made from natural products (cotton uses a lot of water to grow and cloth manufacture produces a lot of pollution) or artificial fibres (i.e. plastic).
Many people are attempting to reduce their plastic usage, and some are even living what the media call "plastic free" lives. There are a number of problems. Such definitions generally mean reducing or entirely cutting the use of single-use plastics such as bags, straws, and packaging. They tend to ignore other forms of plastic found everywhere in modern life. To live a truly plastic free life would be almost impossible.
Many industries use huge amounts of single-use packaging: hospitality, food service, bars, healthcare, beauty. Plastic offers convenient and hygienic packaging for many products in these industries. But this is often unseen by people, and therefore attracts much less interest than retail food packaging.
Another industry which uses plastics is distribution and wholesale. Some advocates of plastics don't realise that the loose vegetables in the supermarket often arrive in plastic packets that are opened by staff. Your local grocer may do better - with paper sacks or reusable wooden crates - but it's far from guaranteed.
A particular problem is plastic nets, floats, and lines used in commercial sea fishing. This is frequently lost and forms a substantial part of marine plastic pollution.
Other apparently benign products also contain plastic. Examples include tea-bags and moist baby wipes. Such plastic use may not be obvious until it is noticed by environmental campaigners and becomes the next hot topic.
Plastic is inescapable in the home: consumer electronics; wiring insulation; pipes; pharmaceutical packaging. There are uses in construction, and most vehicles and many bicycles have plastic parts.
Much clothing is made from plastic, especially sportswear, waterproofs, and shoes; but even jeans and cotton underwear probably contains a little elastane. If you are a vegan (avoiding leather, wool, and other animal products) your alternatives are limited even further. Cotton is environmentally unfriendly, requiring lots of water and being grown by many unpleasant regimes, sometimes using slaves.
Myth of single-use
Many so-called single use items can be re-used, e.g. plastic bags, tubs, bottles. This makes a nonsense of a rigid division in many cases, although a few things such as potato crisp/chip bags and other forms of plastic wrap are unlikely to be ever reused.
Conversely, things like fishing nets are not single use, but are lost so frequently that they must be considered nearly as predictable a form of waste as a single-use bottle. And if you only wear clothes once, e.g. an outfit for a special occasion, then it is essentially single-use.
Other products such as gag gifts, novelties, and unwanted promotional items are essentially no-use plastics, and so they are even worse. Yet for some reason there is less interest in banning novelty items than plastic bags which at least have a practical use.
This is important because when people, organisations, or places declare they are plastic free, they nearly always mean they avoid certain types of "single-use" plastic, rather than the abolition of all plastics.
Advantages of packaging
Effective food packaging will reduce wastage and hence have an environmental benefit. Of course there are alternatives, but many have downsides: refrigeration (uses lots of energy), irradiation (requires large-scale equipment and scares people), waxing (may affect food taste), food additives (most are benign but: some people have allergies to certain ones; may be expensive; may alter taste; not suitable for all products e.g. raw fruit and veg).
Alternatives to plastic packaging (e.g. plastic-free shops) often require a certain mass of people to be economic, particularly with perishable goods such as food. Hence they will tend to concentrate in areas with well-off, middle-class, liberal consumers who are able to afford what may well be higher-priced and less convenient goods. In contrast, packaged products will often be cheaper and more accessible to the poor. (Although this is not necessarily so - cardboard is good for packaging many frozen foods while fresh products may need plastic.)
Better than ivory?
Plastic often replaced animal products, such as in brushes and ornamental goods. Do we want to go back to using pigs' hairs or porcupine quills? Or soap made from animal fat? Most people would accept plastics should be used where there is no viable alternative.
Cost of replacement
People are trying to replace cheap plastic vessels with more expensive non-plastic items such as glass jars and metal vessels. If you buy a plastic bottle of water every day, then replacing that with a durable alternative will doubtless have environmental benefits. However, because plastic is light, durable, and cheap it may be the best medium for other things - a packet of spice that's only replaced every few years might be better supplied in a cheap plastic tub or bag than stored in an expensive reusable glass and steel vessel manufactured on the other side of the world.
Clearing ocean plastic
"But if plastic waste is caused by littering, why not just punish litterers?"
Actually, while some environmentalists may blame inconsiderate individuals and foreground things like discarded plastic bags, much plastic waste is caused by products that are accidentally lost (whether from boats or in tsunamis and storms), as well as microplastics that pass through sewage.
This seems a good alternative, and many people call for using biodegradable products (wood, paper, etc) instead of plastic. However, there are evidently practical problems.
Reduce, reuse, or recycle?
The waste hierarchy is based on the principle that you should reduce use where possible, and if not re-use, and when reuse is impossible, recycle. Hence, recycling should not be a first option but can be a way of disposing waste. Recycling plastic requires energy for processing, and also requires products to be transported to recycling stations. Many plastics cannot be reused: it often isn't a case of melting down and reusing, and waste is often recycled to lower-grade plastic if it can be recycled at all.
So one way of reducing plastic waste is to improve recycling schemes. This can involve clear labelling and restrictions on the types of plastic used to prefer more recyclable ones. An alternative is to have deposit schemes to collect and refill plastic bottles. Again there are pros and cons. Some schemes may involve complex infrastructure, lots of small transactions to take account of, and involve economies of scale that benefit large businesses over small. Standardisation helps recycling and reuse, but stifles innovation and may antagonise libertarians.
Whether reusing or recycling there is a question of whether the producer or the state should be responsible for collecting and processing. Putting the responsibility on the producer reduces state and personal spending. However, there is the question of how to get back to producer. Schemes that require consumers to transport their plastic waste will benefit middle-class people with cars. The alternative is a centralised state scheme such as kerbside collections of waste for recycling mixed waste.
Mixed waste recycling schemes are complicated by the different values of different products: often they are subsidised by high value waste (particularly aluminium but also easily-reused plastic), and if you remove that, you render schemes uneconomic as a whole and will end up with large amounts of discarded of low-value waste. On the other hand, mixed waste schemes still have to deal with the low value waste, which may involve shipping it overseas.
Waste can be burned for power generation and heating. However it causes air pollution and carbon dioxide, and burning plastic is much less efficient than burning gas, so it isn't ideal either.
- See the Wikipedia article on Plastic.
- See the Wikipedia article on Plastic pollution.
- Living Without Plastic, Friends of the Earth, accessed 11 Jan 2019
- Plastic-Free Communities, Surfers Against Sewage, accessed 11 Jan 2019
- Planet or Plastic: A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled, National Geographic, July 2017
- A running list of action on plastic pollution, National Geographic, July 2018
- See the Wikipedia article on Great Pacific garbage patch.
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think it Is, National Geographic, March 2018
- Microplastics found in human stools for the first time, The Guardian, 22 Oct 2018
- Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals, The Guardian, 6 Sep 2017
- We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us?, National Geographic, June 2018
- I rely on plastic straws and baby wipes. I’m disabled – I have no choice, Penny Pepper, The Guardian, 9 July 2018
- Plastic Straws, Green Matters, 18 July 2018
- Plastic Straws Aren't The Problem, Adam Minter, Bloomberg, 7 June 2018
- Plastic straws aren’t just bad for the environment — they can be bad for your body, Washington Post, 2 July 2018
- See the Wikipedia article on Microplastics.
- Shampoo, Salon, 2009
- Deadly and Dangerous Shampoos, Toothpastes, and Detergents: Could 16,000 Studies Be Wrong About SLS?, Joseph Mercola
- Pre-Packaged Produce: Fresh Foods Get a "Bad Wrap" for Sustainability, Delishably, 12 Dec 2018
- Fast fashion quick to cause environmental havoc, University of Queensland, Australia, accessed 11 Jan 2019
- See the Wikipedia article on Synthetic fiber.
- Cotton, World Wildlife Fund, accessed 11 Jan 2019
- End Cotton Crimes campaign, Anti-slavery International, accessed 11 Jan 2019
- The Ocean Cleanup
- Giant plastic catcher heads for Pacific Ocean clean-up, BBC, 7 Sep 2018
- Should we burn or bury waste plastic?, BBC, 20 Feb 2018