5 SURPRISING SOURCES OF PLASTIC
IT’S NOT JUST STRAWS AND PLASTIC BOTTLES THAT ARE THE PROLEM
Some things have become icons of plastic pollution. Straws. Tooth-brushes. Water bottles. But to really understand the scale of the problem, here are five lesser talked about things that we all should know about. It’s a bit depressing to be honest. But information is power.
1 / CIGARETTES
Straws have been made the demon of the peace in the fight against ocean plastic. But their contribution to the problem pales into insignificance when compared with cigarettes. 5.5 TRILLION cigarettes are smoked each year. The filters are made of plastic fibres, which take decades to break down (and will never completely disappear). Unsurprisingly, given how folk casually dispose of the butts, this makes these the number one item found on beach clean-ups. 2.4 million were collected on 2017’s global coastal clean-up day, nearly double the amount of any other item. The solution is obvious - but obviously not easy.
2 / TEABAGS
Most popular UK brands are only 70-80% biodegradable, due to the use of polypropylene, a thermoplastic that helps the bags retain their shape. Given our nation’s relationship with a brew, that adds up to a LOT of plastic! PG Tips and the Co-Op have recently announced plans to stop using this. And there are brands that have always been plastic free, like Teapigs. (Here’s a good list.) It feels like this is a quickly changing situation - in a good way - so it’s worth a quick Google to check for updates, as you may find your favourite brand has made a good-news-move to being plastic free.
3 / CLOTHES
This is a complicated issue. Man-made fibres - synthetics, such as acrylic, nylon, polyester and lycra, are essentially plastic. This causes problems in two ways. The first is microfibres. The brilliant Story of Stuff explains this far better than I could, so grab a cuppa and watch this eye-opening little film:
If you didn’t watch, top-line is that every time we wash synthetic clothes, teeny-tiny plastic fibres are released. These fibres are too small to be filtered out, and make their way directly into our water-ways, and ultimately the sea. Some estimates say that this accounts for up to a third of all ocean plastic, which blows my mind. Whilst the scale of this is difficult to comprehend, there are a few things we can all do to help.
Firstly, wash clothes less often.
Secondly wash at lower temperatures and on a gentler spin cycle.
But probably the most effective solution is to get a brilliant Guppy Friend. It’s big drawstring bag to wash clothes in, designed to catches the tiny microfibres and prevent them from entering our waterways. Just don’t rinse the bag out under the tap ;-)
The second problem is what happens to our clothes when we are done with them. Fast fashion has meant a shift away from buying quality clothes - made to last - to cheap, ‘disposable’ garments. We now cycle through an alarming volume of low-quality clothes, most of which are made with synthetic fibres. Each year, in the UK, an estimated £140m of clothes - or 300,000 tonnes - will end up in landfill. Once there they will take up to 200 years to break down, releasing dangerous methane gases in the process. Or, they will end up being burnt - which is equally polluting.
The only way to combat this is to wean ourselves off our crazy addiction to to ‘shopping’. We just gotta be more mindful about how we spend our money. Buy less, buy better, buy natural fabrics. Repair, re-sell, donate, swap. Just show ‘dem clothes more love!
4 / FISHING GEAR
Here’s a ‘fun’ fact: Discarded fishing nets (or, ghost nets as they’re often called) account for nearly half (!) of all ocean plastic. So there is clear correlation between plastic pollution and eating fish. And, if you jumble that sentence up a bit, and consider the fact that plastic is entering the food-chain via bottom feeders in the ocean, there’s also the clear correlation between eating fish and eating plastic. Ewwwww! I’m aware this is a sensitive subject - one that’s bound up in bigger discussion around the ethics of eating animals. But for me this is so simple. If you would give up a straw to save a fish, why would you not give up a fish to save a fish?
5 / CHEWING GUM
Lastly, gum. This is 100% gross. I’ve only just learnt that chewing gum is made of plastic. If you check the ingredients, you’ll see something like ‘gum base’. Well, that’s code for plastic - usually polyethylene, mostly commonly used for making plastic bottles and bags. The reason manufacturers can get away with this ‘quirk’ in regulation is that they are allowed to list ‘secret recipe ingredients’ in generic terms - a bit like ‘natural flavourings’ on Coca Cola. Iceland (the shop not the country), who are doing a huge amount of good things around sustainability, now stock Simply Gum, a natural, plastic-free gum (the only one I’ve found). We just have to hope that, like lots of fantastic plastic-free innovations, that this can become the norm, not a niche.