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Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues, as rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them. Do you understand the full environmental impact of plastic waste?
In the UK alone, we use 35 million plastic bottles every day and we buy around 7.7 billion plastic bottles every year. This results in substantial amounts of single-use plastic waste.
It is tempting to demonise plastics, but realistically, plastics themselves are not inherently evil. But whilst we advocate for the responsible use of recyclable plastic (it still has lots of benefits), we absolutely agree that there is an urgent need to reduce the amount of plastic waste produced.
So what is the environmental impact of plastic waste?
Soil and Water Contamination
One of the more commonly known effects of not recycling plastic is Water Pollution. Shown in many TV shows and documentaries, the largest impact has been on the marine ecosystems. 10% of plastic produced, eventually ends up in the ocean. Plastic is light weight and has a low density, so items from illegal dumps and landfills travel into nearby rivers. This is ultimately then carried to the ocean and washed up on beaches.
Any plastic materials that float, often accumulate due to currents and form an extremely large area of the ocean that is essentially, purely made up of waste. To put this into perspective, The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is larger than the state of Texas.
Plastic that sinks to the bottom of the ocean, becomes an enemy for millions of small aquatic animals. Items, such as single use packaging, can entangle and strangle them. As well as this, many of these animals mistake plastic waste for food and ingest it, which results in the death of around 100,000 aquatic animals every year. Others are affected heavily by the toxic elements in the plastic.
Sea, sunlight, wind, and wave action break down plastic waste into small particles, often less than one-fifth of an inch across. These so-called microplastics are spread throughout the water column and have been found in every corner of the globe, from Mount Everest, the highest peak, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest trough.
Microplastics are breaking down further into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic microfibers, meanwhile, have been found in drinking water systems and drifting through the air.
Harm to Wildlife
Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish to other marine organisms. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones are affected. Most of the deaths to animals are caused by entanglement or starvation.
Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics.
Microplastics have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels destined for our dinner plates.
Plastics have been consumed by land-based animals, including elephants, hyenas, zebras, tigers, camels, cattle, and other large mammals, in some cases causing death.
Littering is still a huge problem in the UK. Keep Britain Tidy estimates that we drop two million pieces of rubbish every day across the country. This equates to us dropping 23 items of rubbish every second.
The organisation also found that taxpayers are paying out £1bn every year to cover the cost of street cleaning, while the RSPCA announced recently they receive an average of 14 calls a day about wildlife harmed by litter, but it acknowledges that the actual number of animals affected by rubbish is likely to be much higher.
Plastic isn't the only culprit in our war against litter, but it can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose, depending on the material and structure, which is what makes it such a significant factor.
Plastic in Landfills
Non-recycled plastic is highly likely to end in a landfill. Over time, harmful chemicals released from the plastic filter into the ground and contaminate drinking water supplies. The process also releases toxic gasses into the atmosphere.
Much like the aquatic animals, animals on land searching for food in landfills can ingest large amounts of plastic which can eventually lead to an early death.
Contribute to Climate Change
Plastic is one of the most greenhouse gas intensive industries in the manufacturing sector – and the fastest growing. Greenhouse gas emissions from plastic are accelerating climate breakdown and threatening our ability to maintain a survivable climate.
In 2019, the production of plastics added more than 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – the equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants! By 2050, the accumulation of these gases will account for up to 13% of the total remaining carbon budget. That’s the amount of extra carbon the planet can tolerate before tipping global warming over 1.5 degrees – the danger line.
We hope that gives you a better understanding of the environmental impact of plastic waste! Recycling plays a big part in reducing plastic pollution, but we can do much more! We need to focus on reducing the production, reusing what we can and effectively recycle essential plastic waste.
We can all decrease the production of plastic by increasing the amount of plastic that we recycle. Recycling lengthens the plastic’s lifespan. Similarly, we can also reduce the amount of plastic that we use on a daily basis. If you would like to reduce the amount of plastic you use, check out our article about ways you can reduce your plastic use.