The Plastic Problem

By Ed McCue on 30/05/18 

Its in our rivers, lakes and on our beaches. We see it on our streets and even in our deepest oceans. It can be so small that tiny plastic fragments found in fertilisers can find their way into the food chain. They are even hidden in fleeces, teabags and crisps packets.


But it is present in almost every aspect of modern day life, and we can’t seem to live without it. The very properties that make it so damaging to the environment – its durability and longevity – also make it so convenient for our day to day lives.


Each plastic bottle and bag, cotton bud and coffee cup will be entrenched in our environment for decades if they are not recycled – of which only around 14 percent of plastics are. Burning plastics doesn’t solve the problem either. With 300 million tonnes of the stuff being produced globally each year, it is beginning to look almost impossible to find a way out of our plastic crisis.


The European Commission presented its long-awaited marine-litter busting proposal on single-use plastics on Monday 28th May. The plan to ditch single-use plastics may soon be implemented in EU legislation. Spurred by China’s decision to cut off imports of European waste, throwaway plastic products could soon be banned across much of Europe. Close to 85 percent of all oceanic litter is plastic. Around half of that is made from throwaway items, hence why the Europeans Commission’s recently announced proposal targets items such as plastic straws, cotton buds, plastic cutlery, beverage stirrers and sticks for balloons.


Identifying such products and replacing them with more eco-friendly options that are already available is key. Under the new rule, single-use plastic products will be banned if sustainable alternatives are available and affordable. The proposal also focusses on fishing equipment, as nets and traps make up 27 percent of plastic marine litter.


The plan seeks to cut the litter most commonly found on beaches and in oceans – squeezing £188bn of the bill for environmental damage over the next 12 years. A summary of the new EU rules can be found here.


Other measures include clearer labelling requirements to inform consumers, such as the environmental impact of wet wipes and how to dispose of them properly, and the encouragement of extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, whereby manufacturers must contribute more to the costs of recycling. Enforcing stronger EPR regulations in England alone could save UK councils £300m in clean-up costs each year.


The UK will not have to adhere to any legislation that arises as the ban will not come into full force until after Brexit and if the EU gets the thumbs up from its member states, but the UK environment minister, Michael Gove, has been pushed to follow Brussels’ lead and ensure that Britain continues to tackle plastic pollution.


Gove’s similar ban of disposable plastic items in April has since been dismissed by the EU as only being at the consultation stage, whereas the EU law is considered ‘hard legislation’. But the decline in plastics bags on ocean floors, following the introduction of the 5p bag charge in England, suggests that such measures to tackle waste do work.


Such an impact could be replicated from a potential bottle deposit return scheme which could help eradicate disposable plastics by 2042, as set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.


But it isn’t just national government and the might of the EU that can exert change and influence. April kicked off a range of pledges to ban single-use plastics from various companies and organisations:


The Co-op will ditch clear plastic used for its water bottles, switching it to a ‘cloudier’ part recycled material. Waitrose is set to remove all disposable coffee cups by the end of the year and the NHS is committed to return to china cups and saucers.


Selfridges is committed to no longer selling drinks in plastic bottles and The National Trust is replacing plastic plant pots and trays. Clipper is the latest brand to join PG Tips in dropping synthetic sealants in its teabags, aiming to create a fully biodegradable bag, free of polypropene. Several British festivals have committed to banning single-use plastics by 2021.


Last month, Nestlé pledged to make all its packaging recyclable by 2025. Hotel giant Hilton obliged to eliminate plastic straws from its network by the end of the year – eradicating close to five million plastic straws per year.


Targets have been made – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will meet them. But large businesses are beginning to make the right steps towards reducing their wastage.


But are outright bans on plastics really necessary? Maybe we don’t need to ban plastics, we just need to start using them properly and find innovative ways to deal with plastic pollution.


A UK start-up has claimed to have found the edible solution to plastic packaging. Making water containers from seaweed, the “sustainable packaging” start up, Skipping Rocks Lab, have created Ooho water pouches. The pouches encase a serving of water in a thin membrane made from brown algae.


This isn’t the only new business start-up targeting the global problem of plastic. In New York, Loliware have created a disposable cup that you can eat, made from agar seaweed. Evoware is a start-up from Indonesia that focuses on seaweed-based food wrapping. Furthermore, scientists have recently accidently discovered a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles.


In contrast, some would argue plastic bans aren’t enough if humanity is to really crack down on plastic – we need to go way beyond that, re-think and re-structure the entire industry.


Our careless plastic binge is dangerously damaging environments. Its contribution to climate change poses no efforts to stop this.  It may not be enough to switch to a reusable cup or refuse a straw, but it could mark the start of a greener future.