Plastic revolutionised our lifestyles by its virtues — it’s inexpensive, lightweight, strong, shock-resistant, corrosion-resistant and readily available. It can be coloured, melted, shaped, squashed, rolled into sheets or made into fibres. The plastic product proliferation has been extraordinary in the last 70 years and now we produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year. Start listing down daily-use items which do and do not comprise of some form of plastic, and you’ll realise that the latter is far too difficult.
Single-use, a term referring to products — often made of plastic — that are made to be used once and thrown away, has been named Collins Dictionary’s word of the year for 2018. Low cost and easy access have made us switch to a disposable lifestyle — about 50% of the plastic manufactured is used just once and thrown away, ending them up in oceans or landfills. Plastic never goes away: it is made to last forever, yet 33 per cent of all plastic — water bottles, bags and straws — are used just once and thrown away. It may take up to 1000 years for plastic items to decompose in landfills.
Approximately 4 billion pounds of trash per year enter the ocean. 80% of this is from land-based sources, including individuals, industry and improper waste management/infrastructure. Only 20% is the result of ocean-based sources, such as fishing, shipping, and cruise ship industries. There is an island of garbage twice the size of Texas inside the Pacific Ocean: the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California. It is the largest oceanic garbage site in the entire world. And Texas is 695,662 km² in area. Plastic pollution is very real and single-use plastics are small but have a large impact.
John Wesley Hyatt invented the first polymer in 1869 inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 when Leo Hendrik Baekeland accidentally created Bakelite. The new thermosetting plastic was used for everything from phones to jewellery to clocks.
Polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic, was created by accident at a chemical plant in Northwich, England in 1933. While it was created in small batches, it was the first industrially practical synthesis of a material and was initially used in secret by the British military during World War II.
In 1965, a Swedish company Celloplast patented the one-piece polyethylene shopping bag. It was designed by engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin and quickly replaced cloth and plastic in Europe.
A rare novelty in the 1970s, plastic shopping bags are now an omnipresent global product. They are showing up in the darkest depths of the oceans to the summit of Mount Everest to the polar ice caps.
In 1982, Safeway and Kroger, two of the biggest supermarket chains in the United States, switched to plastic bags. More stores followed suit and by the end of the decade, plastic bags replaced paper around the world.
By 2011, one million plastic bags were being consumed every minute globally.
In one year, we use/throw about:
Every minute a truckload of plastic enters the ocean but to know where is it coming from Greenpeace together with Break Free From Plastic enlisted the help of 10,000 volunteers across 42 countries to embark on the world’s most ambitious plastic cleanup and brand audit project yet. After covering 6 continents in 9 months with 239 cleanup events and more than 187,000 pieces of trash later the most comprehensive snapshot to date of how corporations are contributing to the global plastic pollution problem was given. The top 10 most commonly found brands (in decreasing order) were: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Perfetti van Melle, Mars Incorporated and Colgate-Palmolive.
But corporations have started taking notice, mostly due to consumer pressure. Instagram users recently tagged corporations with #isthisyours hashtags when they discovered plastic from their brands.
ASDA, the UK food retailer, plans to immediately reduce plastic use by 10 per cent in 2018, which will require the replacement of 2.4 million drinking straws. All of its stores will also remove single-use cups and cutlery by 2019. It set out ambitions to make all its branded packaging recyclable by the mid-2020s.
McDonald’s decided to ensure 100 per cent of its packaging comes from renewable, recycled or certified sustainable sources within the next eight years.
Costa Coffee operates over 3,000 stores around the world and commitments have been made including discounts on reusable cups and the planned removal of all plastic straws from cafes. By 2020, the company is targeting half a billion recycled cups, the equivalent of its current annual sales in the UK.
Evian, a world-famous brand of bottled water, has made the pledge to only produce bottles which are 100 per cent recycled by 2025. A partnership with Veolia will also rapidly scale-up recycling rates and ensure discarded bottles don’t end up in the ocean.
Tottenham Hotspur, the North London football club, moved to eliminate plastics from its new stadium. Fans will be sold disposable cutlery, straws and stirrers from day one.
We could broadly divide global initiatives into three broad categories.
Services which allow you to pay or earn in exchange for plastic waste. For instance, the Return and Earn Container Deposit Scheme by the New South Wales Government, Beijing’s initiative to allow riders to pay with plastic bottles and GO Box, a way to get your meal served in a REUSABLE takeout container.
A Plastic Ocean is directed by the Australian journalist Craig Leeson. It dives into and investigates the devastating impacts that plastic has caused to our environment, especially our marine life. What starts off as an adventure to film the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, leads to the shocking discovery of a thick layer of plastic debris floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Craig, alongside Tanya Streeter, a world record-breaking free diver and environmental activist, then travel across the globe to report on the havoc caused by decades of plastic use. (Source)
Have you come face-to-face with the single-use crisis? How are you dealing with it? We would love to know your thoughts.