Everything you need to know about plastic pollution

1 March 2019

Humans have only been mass producing plastic for the last six decades. But in that time, we’ve created more than eight billion tonnes of the stuff, with most of it being dumped in our oceans or going straight to landfills. We’re drowning in plastic and it’s having a catastrophic effect on our environment – here’s what you need to know about plastic pollution.

What is plastic pollution?

Plastic pollution refers to the mass dumping of plastic waste into our seas and landfills around the globe. It’s a huge contributor to species extinction in our oceans, and the mass production of plastics is a key contributor to climate change.

Why is it a problem?

More than 12 million tonnes of plastic is dumped in our oceans every year. And it’s estimated that more than eight million pieces of plastic go into our seas every single day.

Half of all plastic waste comes from disposable plastics, like water bottles, that are only used once before being thrown away.

Sea life is killed by plastic pollution when animals become entangled in plastic waste, or ingest plastic on a large scale. And as plastics make their way up the food chain, they pose a substantial threat to humankind – affecting hormones, immune systems, and even causing diseases like cancer.

Can plastic be recycled?

Nearly all plastic can be recycled – but the extent to which you can recycle your plastic waste depends on your local council’s recycling policy. Many councils don’t accept plastic carrier bags or food wrapping, and black plastic is problematic because it can’t be detected by sorting machinery.

Of all the plastic we’ve produced in the last six decades, only 9% of it has actually been recycled, with around 79% of it ending up in landfills or littering the environment.

Check what can be recycled in your local area on the Recycle Now website.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are bits of plastic less than 5mm in length. They can be splintered from other large pieces of plastic, or specially engineered to be used in toothpastes and face wash.

Microplastics have had a catastrophic impact on the planet because they end up on our beaches and in our oceans in such vast quantities.

Researchers have found that microplastics end up in the stomachs of every sea mammal found dead on UK coastlines. And they’re so small, that it’s become virtually impossible to eradicate microplastic pollution from our beaches and oceans.

How does plastic affect the environment?

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade – which means that once it’s here, it’s here forever. We’re drowning in decades of plastic pollution and, on top of that, newly made plastics are finding their way into circulation every day.

While there are lots of campaigners and conservationists fighting to remove plastics from our oceans and beaches, much of the damage caused by plastic production is irreversible:

Carbon emissions from plastic

Fossil fuels are used in the production of plastic, so every piece of plastic in the world is responsible for generating carbon emissions.

In fact, 99% of plastics come from chemicals sourced in oil and gas production. Those emissions end up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and contribute to global warming.

Habitats and species extinction

Every year, around 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, and one million sea birds are killed by plastic pollution in our oceans. Plastic pollution is the second biggest threat to the future of our coral reefs after climate change, with more than a third of coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region littered with plastic.

Sea birds and larger marine creatures become entangled in plastic debris, and larger pieces of plastic damage the digestive systems of whales and dolphins. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish which can cause internal blockages that usually result in death.

But it’s not just our seas that are in danger. Toxic chemicals from plastic in landfills drain out and seep through the soil into groundwater, flowing downstream into lakes and rivers. And the RSPCA receive around 5,000 calls a year due to littering, which includes domestic animals that become entangled in plastic.

How to fight plastic pollution

Fighting plastic pollution may feel like an uphill battle, but if all of us start to make small changes, we can help limit the amount of additional plastic that ends up in our oceans. You can help fight plastic pollution by:

  • Cutting out single use plastic
  • Always carrying cotton shopping bags with you
  • Buying loose fruit and vegetables
  • Lobbying retailers to reduce their plastic packaging
  • Writing to your local MP to demand better legislation around plastics

Read our full list of tips for cutting plastic out of your life.

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