Everyone has seen litter, discarded plastic packaging tossed into hedgerows or left on beaches. Distressing reports from the Pacific Henderson Island show beaches covered in 38 million pieces of plastic, despite the island being uninhabited by humans. We have removed our personal responsibility for waste disposal, instead opting to ship much of it to countries such as China, Malaysia and Indonesia (over 610'000 tonnes in 2018 alone!), who then recycle or simply dump the rubbish. This has allowed for a gradual shift in mindset, to out of sight, out of mind. Of course, the largest absorber of discarded plastic is the ocean (over 8 million tonnes of plastic a year). British skipper, Emily Penn, recently sailed through the world's largest rubbish patch, which covers an area of 1.6 million square kilometres, and I would highly recommend checking out her fascinating project, eXXpedition.
While we simply have not lived long enough to see the long-term effects of plastic, the immediate danger of these 'macro' plastics is easily understood. However, another, possibly darker threat is also at play. Microplastics are the tiny (<5mm) pieces of plastic that have usually broken away from a larger item, although some are created intentionally small, like those used in sandblasting. Where is the danger? Well, every time synthetic materials go through the washing machine, minute fibres are washed away to rivers and oceans. These fibres collect bacteria and pollutants before being consumed by fish and other underwater life, resulting in "gastrointestinal infections and blockages, reproductive problems, and starvation". As if this issue isn't serious enough, humans are also at risk, either through microplastics in the water system or by consuming aquatic creatures. Microplastics have even been found in places previously believed to be pristine, like Antarctica. Perhaps the scariest aspect of the microplastics issue is that we have too little experience of such a problem to truly understand the health risks to humans.
How you can help:
For free - avoid buying clothing made from synthetic materials, and beauty products containing microbeads. Make sure that your personal waste is disposed of as properly as you can, and double-check your local area's rules regarding plastic recycling.
For a fee - GUPPYFRIEND Sell a bag that captures microplastic particles from the washing machine (shipping is free, although comes from Germany so takes a little longer). Many local services have appeared in the wake of the pandemic who offer organic and plastic-free produce directly from UK farms. To fellow residents of Yorkshire, I can recommend The Organic Pantry for their fantastic range of plastic-free, organic fruit and veg, not to mention the delicious fresh baked goods!
Up for a challenge? Participate in this year's 'Plastic Free July', an informal annual challenge held internationally to try and bring awareness to the amount of plastic in our everyday lives. The idea is to find plastic-free alternatives to our regular groceries and other purchases, which can be much more difficult than expected. I like to think about how different this challenge would have been only a few decades ago, even if my diet and monthly activities looked the same. Online shops such as The Plastic Free Shop thankfully provide alternatives to many items, which also highlights how rare and modern companies who make plastic-free products seem nowadays, ironically.
Obviously, in medical fields, for example, plastic has allowed for huge advancements in hygiene and safety, and this is in no way directed at those uses, but nobody will ever convince me that a cucumber should be shrink-wrapped.
Combatting plastics is simple enough in theory. We must understand that we are paying for the packaging as well as the product and take responsibility for everything we bring into our homes. Producers must be pressured to change their packaging, the technologies to create biodegradable, or at least recyclable alternatives to every plastic grade are developing so quickly right now, and most have long been in existence.
The life cycle of plastic causes such havoc to the environment at every stage. From extraction methods that release methane into the air, contaminate water supplies and displace vital underground minerals, to minute particles infiltrating the food chain, and finally, incineration which releases toxic dioxins.
One of the most dramatic effects of plastic production is 'Phthalate syndrome'. Dr Shanna Swan's acclaimed 2017 research has suggested that men may be entirely infertile by as soon as 2045 due to the phthalate chemical found in more transparent, flexible plastics (such as those in children's toys and food packaging).
Inevitably, the largest barrier in the fight against plastic is human greed, our modern levels of unprecedented consumption, and our unwillingness to actively care for issues we don't perceive to be under our nose. Together our efforts do make a difference, and (some) companies are really trying to help the situation. For those of us privileged with the choice, taking a moment to weigh up the worth of a plastic purchase, or spending a moment to google an alternative is such a painless and inexpensive step to take when the cost of the alternative is really so high.