When it comes to the plastic issue, many people and businesses are contributing and have been for many years, but who is ultimately to blame?
Essentially, we see that change flows from the top levels of society – the Government in any country or region. Governments really need to mandate penalties or restrictions on producing single-use plastics and incentivize the manufacturing and use of eco-friendly alternatives. Following this, manufacturers and consumers will follow.
Why Is Plastic So Bad?
Everyone now knows that plastic is bad and can tell you that its impact on the environment is the number one reason. There are many reasons that plastic is bad – landfill contribution, environmental toxicity, risk to marine life and wildlife and even risk to humans in some cases.
Here are some key reasons plastics are being recognized as bad or even toxic options, particularly for single-use items:
- Plastic can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose or break down in any environment, including landfill.
- When plastic decomposes, it breaks down into small pieces that may not be visible to the naked eye, however, these small pieces of plastic will never fully decompose and will potentially contaminate water, soil and air.
- Plastic can harm wildlife as they can get caught up in plastic – on land and in the ocean – or they can consume small pieces of plastic which will kill them either via choking or other health consequences or injury.
- The manufacturing process of plastic uses high amounts of electricity and water, while releasing large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
- Plastic products have been found to be toxic to humans. This is due to the chemicals added to plastics and then absorbed by humans, such as from water or other bottles. Microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can also be toxic.
- There have also been studies shown that certain chemicals found in plastic can leach out of the plastic and into food and beverages. This has been linked to health problems such as reduced fertility, cancers or metabolic disorders.
How Are Consumers Contributing To The Plastic Problem?
The biggest ways that consumers contribute to the plastic problem is through the purchase and use of plastics such as single-use carry bags or takeaway food or drink containers. They also contribute through the incorrect disposal of plastic which harms the environment from soil to wildlife and marine life.
It’s estimated that there are around 269,000 tons of macro and micro pieces of plastic across all the oceans. This is around eight million pieces of plastic ending up in the ocean EVERY day! The damage this can do to our marine life and quality of water is astounding on many levels.
With the time it takes for plastic to completely break down or even degrade into microplastics being decades and or even centuries, our oceans will just continue to become more and more polluted. This is extremely dangerous for our marine life across the world who can ingest microplastics, be tangled or suffocated by larger plastics or choke on plastic.
Larger plastics can even cause fatal injuries by wrapping around necks, legs and other body parts. Just as plastic is polluting our oceans, it’s en masse on land. With so much plastic ending up as general pollution or even in landfill, this is a massive problem across the world.
Plastic takes an extremely long time to break down, which means that plastic disposed of even in a dump will sit in and on the ground for decades or even centuries. Research estimates around 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s.
Researchers also estimate that around 60 per cent of that plastic has ended up in landfill or the natural environment. Our planet is really getting overtaken by plastic and this has devastating impacts across all levels of life and environment. It’s time to make a change!
Read more about the time it takes plastic to break down here.
How Do Manufacturers Contribute To The Plastic Problem?
Manufacturers are encouraging the use of plastic which contributes to the issue, but also the manufacturing process causes impacts to the environment. The manufacturing process of plastic uses high amounts of electricity and water, while releasing large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
Also, unfortunately, because crude oil and natural gas are the main ingredients, this makes the plastic in many cases toxic either to people, animals or the environment when breaking down. Manufacturing products from materials such as crude oil is also bad for the environment, releasing carbon dioxide into the air, and oil itself being toxic to animals and the environment on many levels.
Does The Government Contribute To The Plastic Problem?
The government’s responsibility for the plastic problems depends on the actual government, as countries around the world have different plastic policies and mandates. There are several ways governments may be contributing to the plastic problems including:
- Lack of policies or mandates for banning single-use plastics
- Lack of policies or restrictions on purchasing single-use plastics
- Lack of incentives to use eco-friendly alternatives
- Lack of single-use plastic tax
- No strong regulations on pollution or incorrect disposal of plastics
- Encouraging the use of plastics through government purchasing of products (i.e. not switching to alternative cutlery, cups, etc)
- No regulations on manufacturing of plastic and limiting energy, water, greenhouse gas emissions
- No education for citizens on the dangers of plastics
- No provision of recycling options for plastics that can be recycled.
What Are Alternatives To Plastic?
With all the negative commentary about plastic, what are the alternatives? The great news is, there are a plethora of plastic alternatives, particularly for single-use items such as bags. Of course, not all plastic products can currently be replaced, but there are great alternatives for many everyday items.
- Reusable items such as fabric, metal, glass, bamboo
- Compostable (bioplastic)
- Biodegradable (bioplastic in part).
Bioplastics are a range of plastic alternatives made from renewable sources such as organic materials. These plastics are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional plastics. They are currently more expensive to manufacture as they aren’t as widely used as traditional plastic yet.
Bioplastics are considered safer for the environment from their manufacturing process which uses less resources and produces lower emissions, through to their ability to be disposed of and return to natural matter.
These plastics are made from renewable materials such as corn starch, tapioca starch and others. This means that when they are disposed of correctly, they reduce waste. They are able to be either quickly broken down (when it comes to landfill disposal) or composted back into the earth.
We can class compostable, PLA (polylactic acid) and biodegradable as the top three bioplastics on the market.
Who Is Able To Fix The Plastic Problem?
The great answer to ‘who can fix the plastic problem’, is that EVERYONE can take steps to help! Consumers can choose plastic alternatives where they can and also consider a worm farm or home composter to take one step further.
When it comes to plastic alternatives, consider reusable plastic bags such as fabric, recycled and others or compostable or biodegradable if you’re aware of how to properly dispose of these. Consider using reusable food and drink containers such as metal, glass, compostable, bamboo and others.
Governments can help by mandating a plastic bag tax, encouraging recycling and composting, banning single-use carry bags and straws/food/drink containers, educating the businesses and people on the impact of plastics and incentivizing the use of compostable or biodegradable alternatives.
Manufacturers can consider getting into the plastic alternatives business and instead selling bioplastics such as compostable or biodegradable.
Why Use Plastic Alternatives?
The biggest benefit of using a plastic alternative for your plastic bags, straws, cups and takeaway containers is reducing your environmental footprint. A typical plastic bag can take centuries to thousands of years to break down in landfill and so biodegradable or compostable plastic reduces this time vastly.
There are also less traditional plastic chemicals in biodegradable plastics which means less environmental issues in the future such as pollution, toxicity and methane production in landfill. The manufacturing process is also more environmentally friendly than traditional plastic manufacturing.
When it comes to ‘who is to blame’ for plastic, we can’t pinpoint anyone. Plastic has been used for centuries unfortunately, and this has been from the top of society to its citizens. However, change does flow from the top i.e. Government.
So it would stand to reason that governments can start the change by introducing policies, penalties, mandates and restrictions on the production and sale of single-use plastics. They can also regulate the manufacturing process, incentivize the manufacturing and use of eco-friendly alternatives and educate their people on the dangers of plastic.
By also encouraging composting and recycling, governments can also help reduce the plastic problem.