Plastic: The Impact On Us All

Is a plastic-free world world possible? Should we be recycling more? In this post I explore why we must manage our own waste better, how far we’ve come and the implications if we do nothing.

Choking On Plastic

It’s clear that our oceans are choking on plastic. As an example take the TV show Blue Planet. In the video below we see distressing evidence of an albatrosses feeding plastic to their chicks:

So it’s little wonder that consumers are starting to feel uneasy about the mounds of plastic they discard every day.  And there are signs that governments are getting serious too. In December 2017 more than 200 countries backed a UN resolution calling for action to reduce the unnecessary use of plastic. Many countries now tax single use plastic bags, while some have banned them. These bags clog up the sorting machines, so few recyclers take them. All shops will be made to charge for bags. The use of bags has dropped by 85% since the 2015 introduction of the supermarket charge. Here in the UK, there have been calls for a levy on plastic bottles. Around the world, more than 480 billion were sold last year, equivalent to almost a million per minute.

The Impact Of Rivers

Recent analysis suggests that 88%-95% of the plastic in our oceans is coming from as few as ten rivers; two in Africa and eight in Asia. In fact, Europe and the USA account for only 2% of the eight million tonnes of plastic leaking into the ocean every year; Asia for 82%.

These rivers are not only very long but they run through either densely populated or conflict-ridden areas. Here municipal services struggle to cope with demand. Plus there may be a culture of throwing rubbish into the rivers. Take China’s Yangtze River as an example. It has 500 million people living close to its banks. And it carries 1.5 million tonnes of plastic to the Pacific each year. Over in Africa, the Nile carries 91000 tonnes of plastic into the Mediterranean annually. Worse still most of this trash is microplastics. Experts predict this will rise, with the main source being household waste. By contrast, Europe’s second longest river, the Danube, discharges 1530 tonnes into the Black Sea. There are possible high-tech solutions. One is erecting floating barriers across river mouths to stop waste getting to the seas. But this isn’t a panacea.

Wouldn’t it be better to stop it getting into the rivers in the first place? China is taking steps to tackle its waste problem. It has a ban on the import of used plastic and other foreign garbage for recycling. Since 2012, Britain has sent 2.7 million tonnes of plastic to China. Unfortunately, not a huge amount of it is recycled, rather it is incinerated or dumped.


Recycling is only one of the “4Rs” invoked in the war on plastic: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover. The Government’s Environment Plan has a target of eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. It sensibly, in my opinion, requires action at each stage of the product life cycle.

Supermarkets will be encouraged to reduce plastic packaging. Iceland announced that its own-brand products would be plastic-free by 2023. But two things are worth noting. First, the issue of recycling in the UK is largely irrelevant to the issue mentioned earlier: plastic in the sea.  And second, plastic-free isn’t always more environmentally friendly. For instance, glass, being much heavier, requires more energy to transport. And replacing fossil-fuel plastics with degradable bioplastics

derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oilscorn starch, or microbiota.

… would require using up a vast amount of agricultural land. So, given how cheap and useful it is, plastic packaging will be around for a long time yet. In Europe, much of it will end up having its energy “recovered” in plants that, while relatively efficient and non-polluting, do essentially just burn it. So, we’re all going to have to manage our own waste better. That will mean building more recycling facilities but taking personal responsibility to use less plastic. Weaning ourselves off plastic will be tough, not least economically. Yet however important plastic is to us, we depend even more on the health of our oceans.

What do you think? Why not leave a comment below:

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Originally posted 2018-02-10 12:44:43.

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