The Problem with Plastic
Written by Mollie Knight
In honour of Plastic Free July, I thought it might be good to have a re-fresher on why plastic is so bad for the environment and why we should continue to phase it out of our lives - and if you do already know how bad plastic is and avoid it at all costs anyway, this can be a good reminder of why you’re doing what you do! Keep reading for the scoop on why plastic is so bad and to find out what the largest contributors to plastic pollution and how you can replace them…
Plastic is a loose term that describes materials that can be formed and moulded under heat and pressure. When we’re talking about the invention of plastic, we’re not talking about traditional kinds of ‘plastic’ that have been around for centuries, like shell, amber or animal horn – synthetic plastic, which is what we usually mean when we say plastic, was invented in 1907 by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. He coined ‘Bakelite’ which created a consumer boom and was used in products like radios and telephones. His invention inspired other people to try and make their own plastics, namely the petroleum and chemical industries - who were looking for ways to make use of their waste materials. From these companies came plastics like Perspex and polyethylene – now the world’s most popular plastic. Plastic began to filter into all kinds of different products and had many different uses – from stockings to artificial hip joints.
From the 70’s onwards, plastic production, consumption and plastic waste sky-rocketed. The properties of plastic that make it so useful, durable and versatile also mean that it is incredibly difficult to dispose of. In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste we generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years. Also, as mentioned, most plastics are made from chemicals that come from the production of gas, oil and coal – all of which are contributing to the warming of the planet. Even as plastic begins to break down, it breaks down into ‘microplastics’ which are toxic and filter into water-ways, eco-systems and the air. They have since been found in salt, seafood and beer, which is particularly worrying as the health effects of microplastics are still not really known. These micro-plastics can come from plastic products like tyres, cosmetics or washing synthetic clothing. Now, we produce around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.
I know this all sounds very scary, and in some ways it is, but don’t fret! There are replacement items for the top 5 polluters, which you can try and incorporate into your daily life and habits:
Cigarettes – cigarette butts are the largest plastic polluter in the world, with several trillion of them in the environment. The little white filters are made of cellulose acetate and can take as long as any other form of plastic to break down. Not to encourage smoking, but if you want to smoke, the most environmentally friendly way to consume cigarettes is to roll your own and use reusable filters
Food packaging – food packaging is another huge polluter. Try buying fruit and veg that isn’t in plastic (annoyingly, they're usually the more expensive ones in the supermarket), shopping from a market or green grocers, using Eco food wraps, or making your own with scrap fabric and bees wax.
Plastic Bottles & bottle caps – we have all heard about how damaging plastic bottles are for the environment and I think most people have their own bottle now – but if you don’t there are some great options out there!
Plastic Bags – similar to plastic bottles, we’ve all heard about how plastic bags are big pollutants. Most supermarkets have bags for life at checkouts now, so you can opt for those instead. I also try to carry a spare tote bag or one of those water-proof bags that store away in a little pouch in case im every caught out, like these Baggu bags.
Plastic straws – a few years ago there was a large discussion about the impact of plastic straws on the environment. Since then many restaurants and cafés have switched to paper, biodegradable or plant-based plastic straws. Some are even using a type of pasta (uncooked – though it would be funny to see cooked bucatini in someone’s drink) as a straw-replacement. Again you can definitely carry around your own too, just in case. There are so many options out there, but most recently people have been raving about these easy-clean silicone straws.
I hope you found this list of replacement useful and feel inspired to make some swaps this July. Let us know in the comments below or over on Instagram if you have any plastic-free tips or swaps to share!