On plastic pebbles, micro pollution and going zero waste

Plastic is hard to recycle, does not decompose and is energy-intensive to produce. Why, then, is it the main material used for disposable packaging and other single-use purposes?

This week’s Snippets post was inspired by a rather eye-opening experience I recently had whilst volunteering for London-based water charity Thames21. As part of a community initiative organised by my company, I spent a couple of hours one drizzly Wednesday afternoon helping to collect rubbish that the tide had swept up onto the Queenhithe foreshore of the river Thames.

As a team of 30 odd volunteers, we found a baffling array of junk: car batteries, half buried petrol containers, yards and yards of old rope that had practically fossilised, and – somewhat unexpectedly – something that looked a lot like a horse’s skull. As surprising as these oddities were, they paled into insignificance when we came to realise the extent of a far more shocking problem. The Plastic.

REAMS of it. And I really do mean reams. Food wrappers, cotton buds, coffee cups, water bottles, any bottles, masses of polystyrene, empty Pret packaging, baby wipes, tampon casings, ballpoint pens, plastic bag after plastic bag after plastic bag… Anything disposable plastic item you can think of, we probably found it – weather-beaten, deformed in some way, but still very much there.

We very quickly realised that most of the material making up the 1.5m high steep slope from water level to street level was, in fact, man-made and non-biodegradable rubbish. Some of this packaging had been around so long, muddied brown and warped into round nuggets, it had started to resemble the small stones surrounding it and was only distinguishable by its unnaturally light weight.

The Thames shoreline, one of our city’s remaining ecosystems, reduced to a growing pile of plastic pebbles.

Now I consider myself a eco-conscious kinda gal so I was pretty shocked to see the extent of London’s plastic problem, sitting quite literally in a massive pile right outside my office. I couldn’t stop thinking about the sheer amount of it, not only on the shoreline, but all around us. It’s almost impossible to go about your general life and avoid single-use plastic. From buying groceries in Tesco, to toiletries in Boots, to your lunch in Pret, nearly every type of packaging you might encounter for everyday necessities is made of the stuff. I mean, do our fair-trade bananas really need to come in a sealed plastic bag?! I decided to do some research…

 

Here’s a few things I found out :

  • “Plastic can never be recycled completely. After two or three recycles it becomes inferior in quality. A staggering 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all: 40% is landfilled, and 32% leaks out the collection system.” RAW Foundation‘s Melinda Watson, quoted in the Guardian.
  • Micropollution is an inevitable consequence. Being non-biodegradable, plastics simply fragment into smaller and smaller pieces that, as this piece from the Independent summarises, are ending up in our food, water and air.
  • These plastic particles are so prevalent that 8 in 10 babies and nearly all adults have measurable levels in their bodies, according the Scientific American. As for the long term health effects of this, nobody yet knows. But the UK government has become sufficiently concerned about this unknown risk to recently launch a review.
  • Even gathering all the plastic together and burying it deep underground has its dangers, as the above Scientific American article goes on to say, because plastic chemicals leech into the land and contaminate the groundwater system.

I could go on with more factoids here, but I think you get the point. For something so eminently indestructible, the mind boggles as to why we use plastic for SO MANY single-use purposes. Just as we look back on this kinda crazy thinking like WTF, I’m pretty sure in years to come we’ll remember our plastic days and be like…

 

However, it’s not all doom and gloom…

… I also found out that there is some pretty cool stuff being developed that could revolutionise how we use plastics and packaging in the very near future:

  • Forget water bottles, UK start-up Ooho! has produced an edible water bubble that is cheaper to produce than plastic and made of natural sources. The membrane is completely tasteless but can have flavourings added to it, and the company is already producing them for events. You could be seeing these at festivals and running races very soon!
  • After a chance discovery, Spanish scientist Federica Bertocchini collaborated with Cambridge Uni to prove that wax worm larvae can consume and digest the polyethylene plastic that makes our supermarket shopping bags. Given plastic bags can take up to 400 years to decompose naturally, the potential to isolate the digestive enzyme in these critters could be a massive step forward in the challenge of reducing our plastic landfill.
  • And finally, not so much a scientific development, but FANTASTIC evidence that simple environmental policies really can have be amazingly effective in changing people’s mindset: stats released 1 year after the UK government introduced a 5p plastic bag levy showed a staggering 85% reduction in single-use bags, with the charge raising over £22 million for charities.

Imagine a world without any single-use plastics…

Hard to do right? Plastic has become such an prevalent part of our lives, it’s almost impossible to think of a world where we buy our yoghurt or toothpaste or mascara in non-plastic packaging. However there is a growing global movement that is seeking a return to a zero-waste lifestyle: reducing their use of wasteful materials, re-using as much as possible, and composting as much of their waste as possible. If you’re a bit bamboozled by that (I was), check out this video of Bea Johnson and how she has transformed her lifestyle to produce only a jam-jar full of waste in a whole year!   With environmental conversations now turning to how we can create a more circular economy, Bea’s lifestyle – whilst pretty radical compared to our own at present – could end up being a new reality in the not too distant future…