The need for action

Why plastics are on the environmental agenda

10 May 2021

The problem

Hardly a week goes by without alarming new reports of the scale and effects of plastic pollution. 

From the heights of the Alps to the deepest sea floors, in the air we breathe, foods we eat and even drinks like juice and bottled water, plastic is turning up everywhere. 

Much of it we can see, as footage of floating plastic bags and bottles shows. But so much more is invisible, either because it's sunk out of sight or it’s in the form of tiny plastic particles. 

Much of this plastic ends up in the oceans, where it is mistaken by sea creatures and marine wildlife for food. The tiniest "microplastics" might also be the most harmful because they absorb toxins and can become a million times more toxic than the surrounding seawater. 

When tiny bits of plastic are eaten by small fish, the plastic – and the toxins within – get passed on up the food chain, and can eventually end up being eaten by humans. 

False solutions

Here are some of the ways plastic is dealt with right now, and why they’re not enough to tackle the scale of the problem.

  1. Recycling. Recycling is essential for reducing plastic pollution, but it will never be enough on its own. So far less than 10% of plastic produced has ever been recycled. And much recycling is in fact only "downcycling", as plastic can only be recycled perhaps 6-12 times. At the end of its use it gets turned into something like a fleece jacket or a plastic cycle path. These then shed tiny bits of plastic called microfibres and microparticles into the surrounding environment. 
  2. Biodegradable or compostable plastic. These materials are often made out to be the answer to plastic pollution or a greener option, but it’s much more complicated than that. Biodegradable or compostable plastics only break down in certain conditions or when disposed of in special facilities. And for many people these facilities are not available. Often these materials will not degrade in the sea.
  3. Bio-plastic. This is plastic made with some kind of biological material, normally plant matter, and sometimes mixed with plastics made from fossil fuels. Once the plant material has been turned into bio-based plastic, it is exactly the same as normal plastic and has the same impacts at the end of its life. Claims are often made that bio-based materials ‘are not plastic’ but this is not the case, and could lead to people thinking it is safe to litter or put in the compost.

The solution

We must drastically reduce how much plastic we use and keep it to the safest and most essential uses. 

This includes essential products such as crutches (to improve mobility) and safe uses, for example in situations when replacing it with other materials would cause more environmental harm. 

Taking action locally is essential to building the support needed across the UK for driving change. There are many things you can do in your community to help build this support, including:

What we're calling for

The government must lead the way by creating laws to phase out plastic pollution and push companies to design safer and more environmentally friendly products.