How to fight plastic pollution beyond Earth Day 

In recognition of Earth Day, we wanted to reflect on the environmental challenges we face and the actions we can take to protect our planet. This year the Earth Day theme is Planet vs. Plastics, looking at the impact both on the environment and our health. So, here we look at the three main reasons why plastic is harming our planet and share actionable steps we can all take to make a difference. 

What is the problem with plastic? 

We now produce 460 million tonnes of plastic every year, that’s almost 10 times the weight of all the wild mammals in the world alive today! This is bad for our planet because: 

  • The production of plastic is heavily reliant on fossil fuels 
  • Most plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills 
  • Plastic pollution poses a severe threat to nature, especially in our waterways 

Plastic is used in so many items, not just for bottles, bags and packaging as you might expect, which makes up just 42% of our plastic usage. 10% of plastic is synthetic clothing fibres and 20% is in construction, for items such as plastic pipes, roofs, floors, windows and paints. 

Plastic can take a very long time to break down. As a comparison, food takes around 6-12 months, a cotton t-shirt around a year, a plastic bag 20 years, polyester clothing 100 years and a plastic bottle 450 years! And of course, these are just estimates, as no one has been able to study over that long a period! 

Plus, plastic never actually decomposes in the way other substances do, it simply breaks into tinier and tinier pieces, known as microplastics.  

What are microplastics? 

Microplastics, tiny plastic particles resulting from the breakdown of larger plastic items, have infiltrated our waterways, soil, and even the air we breathe, posing potential risks to human health.  

Microplastics have been found in tap water, bottled water, and even commonly consumed beverages, such as beer and salt. In fact, a new study estimates that the average adult consumes approximately 2,000 microplastics per year through salt alone. 

What happens to all the plastic? 

Shockingly only 9% of all plastic worldwide is recycled. Half of the world’s plastic still goes straight to landfill. Another fifth is mismanaged – meaning it is not recycled, incinerated, or kept in sealed landfills – putting it at risk of being leaked into rivers, lakes, and the ocean. 

Recycling rates are much higher in certain countries (e.g. UK is 44%) but we have to remember that plastic cannot be recycled forever, as its quality decreases each time it is recycled.  

So, what can we do about it? 

It can often feel like we don’t have a lot of control over the amount of plastic in the world, and that governments or companies should be the ones making the changes. But change needs to come from everyone. We all have an area of influence and control over our own decisions when it comes to things like shopping, or our homes. 

And laws are changing! In March at the UN Environment Assembly, 175 nations agreed to develop a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by the end of this year. This hugely important resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. 

Plus, lots of companies are making changes to the amount of plastic in their products, due to increasing public demand. So don’t underestimate what a difference consumer pressure can make! 

- Over 120 countries have laws to regulate plastic bags. 
- Over 60 countries have bans & levies on single-use waste.​
- 8 countries have a legally binding bans of microbeads​.
- In 2018 China put a ban on imported plastic waste​.

Things we can do today 

Step 1 – Reduce 

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’, but these are not all of equal importance. The most important thing we can do is REDUCE the amount of plastic we use. This could be not using single-use water bottles, choosing food items with less packaging when we shop, or buying plastic alternatives such as plastic-free bathroom products. If we reduce what we use, we reduce the demand for products containing plastics. 

Step 2 – Re-use

The second-best thing we can do is to RE-USE the plastic we do have. Whether this is carrier bags, bottles or plastic containers. It could also be wearing our clothes for longer. Synthetic fibres in clothing account for 10% of all plastic usage.   

Step 3 – Recycle

Finally, when we must buy or use plastic, we should RECYCLE it. The reason this is the 3rd step is because, whilst recycling is preferable to incineration or landfill, plastic cannot be recycled forever (unlike metal). So, recycling delays, rather than avoids, landfill. 

Why not join the millions of others who are celebrating Earth Day by trying one of the steps above, or perhaps by sharing your favourite plastic saving steps with your friends and colleagues? Together we can reduce plastic pollution and help our planet!