This week, thousands of people across the UK are taking part in a Greenpeace investigation into the use of household plastics. It is known as the Big Plastic Count.
The Big Plastic Count is running between 16-22 May 2022 in which U.K. householders are being asked to record their use of plastic.
The data and evidence that Greenpeace collect from the Big Plastic Count will be used to push the British government, supermarkets and plastic manufacturers to tackle the global plastic waste crisis.
Greenpeace will be asking the government to commit to the reduction of single plastic use by 50% by 2025. They will also be asking the government to introduce legislation which will help supermarkets and plastic manufacturers switch to reusable options that will work for everyone.
Greenpeace will also be asking for a complete ban in the sending of U.K. plastic waste to other countries.
What follows is some background information about the global problems that the use of single use plastics are posing to our world.
To support Greenpeace please click here –> Big Plastic Count.
Plastic Pollution – Background
Plastic pollution is one of the greatest challenges the world faces today. The world produces more than 381 million tons of plastic annually, while an estimated 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into the oceans each and every day.
With this 381 million tons of plastic produced worldwide each year it’s no surprise that much of the waste it creates ends up in our soil, lakes, rivers and oceans, as well as in the bodies of humans and wildlife.
Plastics first entered consumer production in the 1950s which ultimately created the global shift away from reusable containers to the single-use, throw-away containers we have today.
During this time the plastic industry has produced over 9 billion metric tons of plastics and the waste pollution created from this plastic has been spread around the entire world.
To the plastics industry, this is a “global success story.”
However, for Earth’s beleaguered ecosystems, for all non-human species, and for anyone paying attention, these plastics have been a deadly disaster.
Plastic Waste Production by Sector
A recent investigation by CBC News Marketplace has concluded that food packaging is one of the greatest sources of global plastic pollution.
Western nations are shipping their plastic waste to be recycled in poorer countries with fewer environmental regulations on how it’s processed and disposed of.
The looming threat of plastic pollution is one of mankind’s greatest challenges.
Plastic Production is Increasing
The durability of plastic is what makes it popular for use in so many products. However its strength and durability also means that it doesn’t break down in the environment.
It’s estimated that a plastic bottle can take 450 years to break down in a marine environment while fishing line can take 600 years.
Even then, it never goes away. It simply breaks down into smaller pieces that may persist in the environment forever.
Plastic Killing Ocean Life
Every year, we’re adding millions of tons more plastic to marine environments. Some researchers estimate that we may be adding up to 12 million tonnes annually.
These tiny pieces of plastic, commonly known as microplastics, may be eaten by fish and other marine life. This can cause a lot of suffering if the plastic builds up in their bodies over time.
When a whale found malnourished and dying off the coast of Norway had to be put down, an autopsy revealed 30 plastic bags and a large amount of plastic packaging waste in its stomach and intestines, which was causing blockages and pain.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)
Lying between California and Hawaii, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is three times the size of France and is the world’s biggest ocean waste repository, with 1.8 billion pieces of floating plastic which kill thousands of marine animals each year.
In fact the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so big that it has been nicknamed the ‘eighth continent’.
Microplastics that bioaccumulate in the food chain and are eventually consumed by humans (the average person ingests about 100 plastic particles each year from shellfish alone) can cause a lot of health problems in people, too.
And just like in the environment, plastic does not break down in the human body, either.
Many of the chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are also known to disrupt embryonic development, dysregulate hormones and gene expression, cause organ damage, and have been linked to obesity, heart disease and cancer.
Read this –> MicroPlastics Found in Human Lungs
Why Buying Plastic-Free is so hard
One of the greatest sources of plastic pollution is single-use plastic found in food packaging. About 95% of what we buy contains some form of plastic packaging.
In a CBC News Marketplace investigation conducted in Canada and the U.K. they explored the role that supermarkets play in fueling plastic pollution, as the majority of food products are continually wrapped in toxic, non-biodegradable plastic packaging.
In the investigation two Canadian families agreed to participate in a social experiment where they switched places to see how the other side lives when it comes to addressing plastic pollution.
In the CBC film (featured above) it highlights the attitudes of both families toward plastic (one family tries to avoid it; one doesn’t) when it comes to buying food.
One couple, Jessica and Jonathan, live in the north end of Toronto, Canada. They shop at No Frills, a discount grocery chain owned by Loblaw Inc., a Canadian supermarket chain with stores located in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
The film follows the family up and down the aisles of their local No Frills grocery store as they shop for food, paying particular attention to how much of it comes packaged in plastic.
The couple, who grocery shop about twice a week, say they used to use reusable bags, but they don’t anymore.
“We never bring reusable bags. We did before. But then we just stopped. We got lazy.”
This couple said that plastic is cheaper and more convenient. And they’re right.
The other couple Sofia, Nick and their daughter, Lyla, are also from Toronto They do their best to live a zero-waste lifestyle and try to be mindful of the waste they generate on a daily basis.
Sofia shops for food once a week and in local grocers that support zero waste and offer food in bulk. She consciously tries to reduce their waste by using cloth bags for produce and reusable bags and other containers to store food.
The lifestyle swap is difficult for Sofia as she finds herself extremely anxious over having to buy food packaged in plastic.
Jessica and Jonathan, tasked with buying food that’s not wrapped in plastic, have an even more difficult time. When it comes to purchasing milk for their infant child, the couple notices they have to buy more milk because it comes in smaller packaging, yet it’s also more expensive.
In the end both families agree that there needs to be more plastic-free options.
However supermarkets and their suppliers have come to rely on plastic because it’s cheap and durable.
However, “cheap” is relative.
UK Grocery Chain – Plastic-Free in 10 weeks
As is the case in Canada, not a lot of plastic waste gets recycled in the U.K. However, more and more consumers are growing increasingly concerned about environmentally friendly packaging – and stores are starting to listen.
The CBC film crew arrives in London, England, and pay a visit to a local grocery chain called Thornton’s Budgens.
Thornton Budgens, one of the first in the world to introduce plastic-free zones, has more than 2,000 products without plastic packaging. Even more impressive is that the store made the change in just 10 short weeks.
The owner of Thornton’s Budgens, Andrew Thornton, said they decided to act against plastic pollution simply because they could.
“If we as one store operator, with very little resources, can do this in 10 weeks, what could Sainsburys do if they put all their resources behind it?
We are trashing the planet, and to me, plastic has become a symbol of one of the things that’s wrong with society today.
So we took action because we could. We felt we could make a difference.”
The products affected by the store’s plastic ban include everything from fresh produce to eggs, fish, bread, cheese and packaged foods.
The store even sells plastic-free bacon that’s packaged in paper and uses a plant-based cellulose film as an alternative to plastic.
Cellulose film looks and acts like plastic, but it’s biodegradable. This means it can be put in the food or garden waste bins and it will go back into the Earth where it will fertilise the soil.
Not only is Thornton Budgens helping curb plastic waste, they are making more money in the process.
“We didn’t set out to do it for commercial reasons, but there is a commercial benefit,”
To achieve their goal, Thornton Budgens have been working with Frankie Gillard of the environmental group, A Plastic Planet.
Frankie says that all the big supermarket chains have the power to push their major brands and suppliers to switch to more sustainable packaging methods.
“You basically say, ‘We’re going to delist your product otherwise.’ They have the power to make or break a brand.
So, of course, they have the power to say how it should be packaged.”
Western Nations Dump Plastic Waste on Poor Countries
The true cost of single-use plastic on human and environmental health is astronomical, and the burden of that cost is unevenly distributed.
Some of the world’s largest plastic producers often ship their waste to other countries to be recycled.
It should be noted that since 1991, nearly half the world’s plastic waste has been sent to China.
The U.S., Britain, Germany, Japan and Mexico were among some of the largest exporters of plastic waste to China as well as several other countries. They were all shipping large portions of their plastic waste to Chinese, who would buy it, recycle it and then make new plastic products.
However, China have decided they no longer wanted their country to be the “world’s garbage dump,” and in an effort to protect both the environment and human health the Chinese government announced (last year) that it would no longer accept plastic waste imports.
This means that by the year 2030 over 111 million tons of plastic will have nowhere to go.
Instead of dealing with their own waste, many Western nations dump (literally) their plastic problem onto other countries who have little to no environmental regulations regarding how waste is processed and disposed of.
For example, in the first six months of China banning plastic waste imports, nearly half the plastic waste exported from the U.S. for recycling was shipped to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.
John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, says:
“Instead of taking responsibility for their own waste, U.S. companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves.
The average person when they put a piece of plastic in a [recycling] bin, they assume it is being recycled, not being shipped to China or now to Southeast Asia, where it will possibly be incinerated or landfilled.”
In the CBC – Marketplace film it shows exclusive footage (provided by Greenpeace) of the ever growing piles of plastic waste in Malaysia.
The footage was taken just outside of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
What Greenpeace found hidden within the mounds of waste was plastic trash from some of Canada’s popular stores and grocers, including a bag from Sobeys, a milk bag from a Nova Scotia dairy Scotsburn, a burger bun bag from Ben’s Bakery and a birdseed bag from a company in Ontario.
The most ironic part is that as these companies continue to dump their trash in places like Malaysia they make no mention of this in their marketing material. After all, to suggest that they are participating in such an environmentally destructive practice would not be good for business.
For example: One of Sobeys’ most popular commercials drives home the slogan, “Delivering you the future.”
One of Scotsburn’s advertisements says, “Our products meet our family values.”
These feel-good (and misleading) slogans convince consumers that these companies actually care about people and their health.
Clearly that isn’t the case.
Only a Small Portion of Plastic is Recycled
Plastics can, and should, be recycled. However a 2017 analysis revealed that a staggering 91% of plastic weren’t.
As reported in National Geographic:
“Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated so rapidly that it has created 8.3 billion metric tons – most of it in disposable products that end up as trash. If that seems like an incomprehensible quantity, it is.
Even the scientists who set out to conduct the world’s first tally of how much plastic has been produced, discarded, burned or put in landfills, were horrified by the sheer size of the numbers.
Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. Of that, only 9 percent has been recycled.
The vast majority – 79 percent – is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter.
Meaning: At some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink.”
Companies Taking Action on Plastic waste
“I’m supporting your business. Support my values.”
The more customers raise their concerns about plastic pollution, the more companies are beginning to change their policies.
In an effort to phase out single-use plastic a string of companies, including Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo, have recently announced that they are introducing reusable packaging for certain products.
“Starting in May, Unilever’s Axe and Dove deodorants will come in refillable steel containers that are expected to last eight years.
PepsiCo will start selling Tropicana orange juice in glass bottles and certain flavors of Quaker cereal in steel containers.
Häagen-Dazs, owned by Nestlé, will come in refillable stainless steel tins.
Procter & Gamble’s Pantene shampoo will come in aluminum bottles, and its Tide brand detergent will come in stainless steel containers.”
These moves by supermarket suppliers are important because if we really want to curb the world’s plastic pollution problem, we need to stop using it – and not just keep hoping that it gets recycled in the far east.
However, what’s alarming is that in America, despite efforts to encourage the public into more recycling, the rates in 2022 have actually dropped to an abysmal 6%.
As reported by The Washington Post on May 4:
“Drawing on the most recent EPA data available and last year’s plastic-waste exports, the new report estimates that Americans recycled 5 to 6 percent of their plastics, down from the 8.7 percent in 2018.*
But the real figure could be even lower, given factors such as the plastic waste collected for recycling that is ‘sent to cement kilns and burned.’
As a result plastics production is on track to unleash more emissions than coal-fired power plants by the end of the decade.
At the current rate of emissions, the world will burn through its remaining “carbon budget” by 2030 – putting the ambitious goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) irrevocably out of reach.”
(*This averages out to a whopping 287 pounds per person every year.)
Plastic bottles, punnets, food wrappers and all lightweight packaging are made of PET plastic. This PET plastic becomes a massive problem if it is not recycled properly.
However there is some good news as scientists at Leipzig University have now discovered a highly efficient enzyme that degrades PET in record time. The enzyme PHL7, which the researchers found in a compost heap in Leipzig, could make biological PET recycling possible much faster than previously thought.
Their findings have now been published in the scientific journal ChemSusChem.
To learn more on how to reduce plastic waste, check out trashisfortossers.com for a beginner’s guide to zero waste living.
If you want to take action to reduce plastic pollution, here are a few tips:
- Bring your own reusable bags to the store when you go to the store.
- Shop for fresh foods and try to buy as few prepackaged foods as possible.
- When dining out, bring your own take-home glass or metal containers.
- Be an advocate for plastic reduction by refusing to purchase plastic products and by actively urging retailers to cut back or eliminate plastic packaging and bags.
Rambling in Pen hopes you have enjoyed this article. If so please share with your friends and family.
We leave you now with a tune from Midnight Oil – Beds are Burning. The lyrics are very poignant.
Peace and Tranquility.
Author: Michael W
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