Plastics - the need for action

Hardly a week goes by without alarming new reports of the scale and effects of plastic pollution. 

From the heights of the Alps to the deepest sea floors, in the air we breathe, foods we eat and even drinks like juice and bottled water, plastic is turning up everywhere. 

Much of it we can see – as footage of floating plastic bags and bottles shows. But so much more is invisible, either because it's sunk out of sight or it’s in the form of tiny plastic particles. 

There are very good reasons why we use so much of it: it’s incredibly cheap, has many uses and is extremely long lasting. But these advantages are also what makes it so harmful. 

In 2016, the last year that information was available, Europe produced 60 million tonnes of new plastic, and worldwide 335 million tonnes was produced. Europe is the world’s second largest plastic producer, and the UK is a big part of this. 

Much of this plastic ends up in the oceans, where it is mistaken by sea creatures and marine wildlife for food. The tiniest ‘microplastics’ might also be the most harmful because they absorb toxins and can become a million times more toxic than the surrounding seawater. 

When tiny bits of plastic are eaten by small fish, the plastic (and the toxins within) get passed on up the food chain, and can eventually end up being eaten by humans. 

What are the solutions?

There are many ways people have tried to deal with our plastic problem, but we think there is only one solution: to phase out all by the safest and most essential uses of plastic. 

Here are some of the other ways plastic is dealt with right now, and why they’re not enough to tackle the scale of the problem.

  1. Recycling. Recycling is a good thing generally and essential for reducing plastics pollution in the short to medium term, but it will never be enough on its own. So far less than 10% of plastic produced has ever been recycled. And much recycling is in fact only ‘downcycling’, as plastic can only be recycled perhaps 6-12 times. At the end of its use it gets turned into something like a fleece jacket or a plastic cycle path. These then shed tiny bits of plastic called microfibres and microparticles to the environment. This means all we’ve achieved by recycling is a delay to when the plastic comes out as dangerous pollution. 
  2. Biodegradable or compostable plastic. These materials are often made out to be the answer to plastic pollution or a greener option, but it’s much more complicated than that. Biodegradable or compostable plastics only break down in certain conditions or when disposed of in special facilities. People need to know exactly how to dispose of an item made using these materials. And for many people these facilities are not available. Often these materials will not degrade in the sea.
  3. Bio-plastic. This is plastic made with some kind of biological material, normally plants, and sometimes mixed with plastics made from fossil fuels. Once the plant material has been turned into bio-based plastic, it is exactly the same as normal plastic and has the same impacts at the end of its life. Claims are often made that bio-based materials ‘are not plastic’ but this is not the case, and could lead to people thinking it is safe to litter or put in the compost.

What can we do?

We must massively reduce how much plastic we use and keep it to the safest and most essential uses. 
This includes essential things like medicine, e.g. for improving quality of life for people with disabilities, and safe uses, i.e. in situations when replacing it with other materials would cause more environmental harm. 

More and better recycling is needed in the short term but is not the answer on its own.

Taking action locally is essential to help build massive support across the UK for change. There are many things you can do in your community to help build this support, including:

  • Working with local businesses to stop them using disposable items like plastic straws or coffee cups (apart from when needed for improving accessibility) 
  • Asking your council to take action
  • Doing beach and urban litter picks
  • Raising awareness in your community

The government must lead the way by creating laws to phase out plastic pollution and push companies to design safer and more environmentally friendly products.

Friends of the Earth is calling for:

  • Government action to phase out plastic pollution
  • An end to unnecessary single-use plastics 
  • People to make their own plastic-free changes, by joining us in Plastic Free Friday and signing our petition