Monika Zilionyte, Environmental Impact Assessment and Management student, reports on the UK ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and what needs to happen next.
‘Every bit of plastic ever made still exists’ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
The UK Government and Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) finally set in place the plastic straw, stirrer and cotton bud ban from the 2018 ‘Green Future: 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ (HM Government, 2018). This new policy, due to have been set in place in April 2020, has now been finalised and put into place in October 2020. This means that the government will ban the supply of plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers to the ‘end user’ with some medical, scientific and forensic exemptions (DEFRA, 2019).
The House of Commons (2020) briefing paper on plastic waste states that the UK alone uses an estimate of 5 million tonnes of plastic every year, predicted to increase to 6.3 million tonnes by 2030. According to BBC News, ‘people in the UK use an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds’ every year (BBC, 2020). There is evidently a cause for concern for plastic production and recycling. Particularly with stipulation of data inaccuracy regarding energy and resource recovery from plastic recycling rates estimated to only be 29% in 2018 and landfill rates at 48%. If production, consumption and habits continue, the projected rate of recycling is estimate to only rise to 37% in 2030 (House of Commons, 2020, p.5).
With pressure from the United Nations, World Health Organisation and from European Union Legislation Directives as well as UK Legislation and Policy on recycling, waste management and carbon emission targets, we expect to see more changes like this in the upcoming future. Many would criticise if focus on straws, stirrers and cotton buds is tackling the issue of plastics head on, whereas some may say it’s a start.
“People in the UK use an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds every year”BBC, 2020
What is it with plastic?
The thing with plastic is, it is almost too good at its job. It’s durable, it’s lightweight, pliable- it’s almost indestructible. It ticks all the boxes and fits all the criteria so well that it would be almost silly not to utilise this great resource. Because of its availability and manufacture qualities, plastic is often engrained into the vast majority of our every-day items (Figure 1). Studies that compare plastic bags to paper bags often justify the cost effective manufacture, durability and re-usability factors of plastic bags over paper bags (Muthu, Yi Li, Hu and Mok, 2009). Similar scenario follows the glass or plastic argument, whereby plastic is favoured particularly for weight, transparency and shatter resistance. So logistically, plastic isn’t the problem.
Plastic is made from long chains of synthetic polymers made from carbon atoms found in fossil fuels (Science History Institute, 2020). The length of these chains, much longer than those that occur in nature, provide plastic with its strong, lightweight qualities. Our ability to create and manipulate these polymers has given humanity the best advantage in technology, construction and production on a massive scale. Integrating plastic into various production streams to provide advantageous elements such as waterproofing, flexibility and more became the logical answer. It’s cheap and effective.
The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt (Science History Institute, 2020) as a substitute for ivory. By the early 1900s chemical companies began to invest in plastic research and development and plastic-use expanded in the Second World War. By then, everyone was hooked and plastics became an integral part of production (EPA, 2019). Mosquera (2019, p.5) highlights, since the creation of plastic, 8.3 billion metric tonnes have been produced and according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ‘every bit of plastic ever made still exists’ (Plastic Ocean Project, no date).
To put this into perspective, going by the projected estimates of UK 2030 plastic use (6.3 million tonnes) and plastic recycling rate (37%), approximately 2.3 million tonnes of this plastic will be recovered. The remaining 2.7 million tonnes will end up polluting the hydrosphere (in our oceans, lakes and drinking water as micro plastics), biosphere (in the diets of various animals and ourselves) and the lithosphere (in landfill and our natural environment).
Plastic is a pollutant. There is no simpler way of saying it. Unless it is treated in an energy recovery facility or recycled/repurposed, plastic will remain within the environment as a hazard and a pollutant. Some plastics can take up to 500 years to break- down (WWF, 2018) in the natural environment. This doesn’t mean that it has left our environment altogether, rather that it has reduced in size but increased in particular amount, these are known as ‘micro plastics’. The dangers with plastics that break down is how easy it is for it to then to transfer into the various spheres. Further polluting water sources, land and animals. Various studies have researched the prominence and effects of microplastics in the marine environments, freshwater systems, floodplains, sediments and within human consumption. The evidence is pouring through, you just have to filter it out (ironic, right?). Bio-accumulation of microplastics within the ecosystem are a major threat to the natural way of life and the health of all ecosystems.
Ultimately, in order to truly understand the significance of pollutant distribution such as plastic, we have to understand the scope of its reach and the way in which the world is interconnected. There is habit to disassociate; particularly in the fast-paced, distraction-filled lives we lead today. This is a gentle reminder than everything we do within our environment affects that environment.
Imagine your childhood days when you peed in the kiddie pool and it was okay, it was funny because this wasn’t your drinking water- or the drinking water of your livestock. Now imagine a group of people peeing in a pool. Imagine that pool to be a river. Now imagine that river feeds the local livestock, wildlife and plants. That water is brought into your home for your consumption, your washing, your cleaning. Imagine that it’s no longer just urine that pollutes that water- someone brought a bunch of glitter to the pool party. Another spilt some oil. The other had chemicals.
This is how vulnerable our environment is. This is how our actions lead right back to our own quality of life, never mind the wildlife and nature around us. It is in our most selfish, self-absorbed, self-interest to look after our environment. For us. For our kids.
What can you do?
- Sign petitions to push for policy to decrease plastic manufacture/use.
- Exercise your personal purchasing power to buy plastic-free or invest in sustainable sources.
- Keep yourself educated and updated on the effects of plastics and other materials
- Recycle properly and familiarise yourself with the different types of plastics and regulations with your local council
- Make responsible choices and opt for sustainable materials
- Join challenges to uproot your plastic consumption habits, via social media or community events
- Watch documentaries, read books and have conversations!
BBC (2020) Plastic straw ban in England comes into force. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-54366461 (Accessed: 7 October 2020).
DEFRA (2019) Consultation on proposals to ban the distribution and/or sale of plastic straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic drink stirrers in England. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/803259/plastics-consult-sum-resp.pdf (Accessed: 7 October 2020).
Environmental Protection Agency (2020) National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials (Accessed: 15th April 2020)
Environmental Protection Agency (2019) Plastics: Material-Specific Data. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data (Accessed: 7th October 2020).
House of Commons (2020) Plastic Waste. Available at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8515/ (Accessed: 7 October 2020).
Mosquera, R. M. (2019) ‘Banning Plastic Straws: The Beginning of the War Against Plastics’, Environmental and Earth Law Journal, 9 (1), p.5-31.
Muthu, S. S., Li Yi, J. H.and Mok, P. (2009) ‘An exploratory comparative study on eco-impact of paper and plastic bags’, Journal of fiber bioengineering and informatics, 1(4), pp.307-320.
Plastic Ocean Project (no date) About Us. Available at: https://www.plasticoceanproject.org/about-us.html# (Accessed: 7 October 2020).
Science History Institute (2020) Science Matters: The Case of Plastics. Available at: https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics (Accessed: 7th October 2020).
WWF (2018) The lifecycle of plastics. Available at: https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/the-lifecycle-of-plastics#gs.i33nxq (Accessed: 7 October 2020).
This blog post was originally posted on Monika Zilionyte’s AgeofEco blog, where you can find more of her eco insights and research!