There is growing awareness about the hazards of single-use plastics in recent years, but do we truly understand the urgency of the matter? Collins dictionary named "single-use" as the word of 2018, reflecting the growing awareness of the issue. Here is some light on what we are dealing with.
Plastic is a rather sturdy material, which was seemingly meant for uses other than single-use. It can stay in our ecosystem for up to 500 years – that means every single plastic item you have ever used, from a straw to an ear swab, is still lives on the planet and will exist for over five generations to come. Plastic does not fully biodegrade. It breaks down into micro and nano-particles that stay in our environment, waterways and even in the air that we breathe!
Mountains of plastic waste…
Over 40% of plastic waste is generated by the packaging industry, much of it single-use. In the UK alone, around 1.53 million tonnes of plastic waste reportedly ends up in the landfill. Despite growing awareness, it has spiked up 24% since 2010. If we don't slow down our plastic production, we could add another 6.3 million tonnes in 10 years, as reported by WWF. It is important to realise that plastic packaging is sometimes necessary, for instance, to prevent food contamination. However, we must inform ourselves about the impact of our choices and make changes to avoid unnecessary waste.
It gets worse...
For decades the rich, developed world has shipped its waste to developing nations that lack the infrastructure to manage waste. At times these shipments contain contaminated waste, rendering all plastic waste as non-recyclable. As a result, it would require incineration which would end up creating environmental and health hazards. Now Asian countries are refusing to accept the developed world's waste, and rightly so.
What can be done to stop further plastic pollution?
Governments are banning single-use plastic bags, straws, etc. However, there are many everyday-use products that currently only come in single-use plastic packaging, that most likely are not getting recycled. For instance, home cleaning products that contain toxic chemicals. Now the onus is upon us as consumers to take the problem in our hands and rectify the damage done over decades.
Manufacturers and retailers conveniently transfer the responsibility to the consumer. There is rampant "greenwashing" by brands that claim to be eco-friendly but still produce millions of tons of plastic waste that still ends up in the landfill. Manufacturers must build and communicate a clear path to phase out single-use plastics. Switching to "recycled" plastic material or bioplastics is not good enough. Most recycling plants don't currently recycle bioplastics as it may contaminate the process.
As consumers, we must fulfil our responsibility by swapping out plastic packaging for products that can be refilled and reused. Consumers must also demand action from manufacturers by boycotting brands that do not have a clear strategy to adopt plastic-free packaging. It is important to educate ourselves about how to make simple swaps and how to recycle properly when there is no alternative.
It only took about 60 years to pollute our oceans and landfills with plastic but it will take a lot more effort to undo the damage. The first step is understanding the magnitude of the problem. Plastic pollution is harming much more than just the fish in the sea. It is time to wake up and take our health, and that of our future generations, in our own hands.
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