The plastic problem

29 mins read

Every year, half of the plastic produced globally is only used once. According to Plastic Oceans, every 60 seconds, one million plastic bags are used, and that’s only for an average of 15 minutes before they are thrown away.

It’s so easy to think that, once our rubbish is taken away by the council, it’s magically wiped from the face of the Earth. But it’s not.

Here’s some food for thought. A packet of crisps takes around five minutes to polish off and yet the actual packet will outlive you, your children and their children. Just think about that for a second.

Think about the countless wrappers you have been through. The millions of pieces of plastic that you alone, made use of, then threw away, to exist beyond the next three generations after you.

Did you know that more than 40% of plastic produced, is solely for packaging? Of that, only 14% is collected for recycling globally. More drastically, only 2% of that fraction is actually recycled.

In the words of Stirling’s Student Union Environmental Development Co-Ordinator, Matt Woodthorpe, “we can make so many changes so quickly, that have such a big impact… but that’s a demonstration on how poor we are as a society.”

The ‘plastic problem’ is this. We can’t keep producing plastic at these levels. It is not environmentally sustainable. By 2050, it is predicted that at the rate we are going, the weight of the plastic found in oceans will be equivalent to that of the fish in the ocean.

We are polluting our oceans, our land and our air. Soon, the damage will be irreversible. Some argue it already is. We need to change the way we view the world, or we will lose it.


Credit: National Geographic


Chemical Catastrophe

When plastic breaks down it releases chemicals. Bisphenol A, most commonly referred to BPA, can be found in water bottles, DVDs and sports equipment. It’s clearly a versatile chemical, and yet, “BPA Free” is now a selling point for many products. Ever wondered why?

BPA is an example of an endocrine disruptor. This means that it disrupts the processes of hormones within the body. In high enough doses, this can result in very serious health implications. Pregnant women are actively encouraged to avoid BPA plastics due to infants having a higher susceptibility to the detrimental effects of the chemical.

It is believed by some in the scientific community, that those exposed to BPA in the womb, are more at risk of cancers (such as breast and prostate cancer). A research paper on BPA and Hormone-Associated Cancers in 2015 found that “foetal exposure to BPA could lead to “long-lasting” effects on the carcinogenesis of certain organs.” According to Medical News Today, research has also shown links between exposure to BPA and health problems, such as male impotence, heart disease and fertility problems.

With plastic ending up in the ocean, inevitably being ingested by marine life, seafood lovers run the risk of consuming BPA themselves. Not a fan of seafood? Landfill plastics break down and release chemicals that filter into our water supplies. Because of the vast quantities of BPA plastics produced annually, humans are exposed to the chemical whether they like it or not.

Worryingly, during a study by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention between 2003 and 2004, BPA traces were found in 93% of urine samples given by participants as young as six.

With evidence like that, how are we still so ignorant about the dangers that plastic poses to our health?

EU Legislation

Last month, Members of the European Parliament voted with a staggering majority of 571 to 53, banning a multitude of single-use plastics. Items such as straws, cotton buds and plastic cutlery are just some of the products that will be affected by the new legislation.

In the words of European Commissioner for the Environment, Karmenu Vella, “We are one step closer to eliminating the most problematic single-use plastic products in Europe. It sends a clear signal that Europe is ready to take decisive, coordinated action to curb plastic waste and to lead international efforts to make our oceans plastic-free.”

This was a huge step for the EU to have taken, but what happens to the UK after Brexit? Labour’s environment spokesman in the European parliament, Seb Dance, said that “with more than 700,000 plastic bottles littered in the UK every day, it would be negligent if the UK does not maintain these new targets if we leave the EU.” He added that “unless the UK mirrors EU action on plastics after Brexit, the Tories risk turning the UK into a dumping ground for cheap, non-recyclable plastics.”

Some argue that the EU legislation simply bans items that should not have been allowed to exist in the first place. Others are just glad to see something being done.

Already, various companies have started making the switch. McDonald’s goes through around 1.8 million straws daily and in September 2018 they made the switch from plastic to paper straws across all British and Irish stores; with plans to achieve this globally by next year. Other companies are following suit or have already done so. Wetherspoons no longer serves plastic straws and Wagamamas will be scrapping them for good by late April next year.

In addition, the UK Government put a ban on the sale of cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads this year. The reason they are so harmful is due to the fact that the beads don’t break down. Instead, they act as yet another plastic pollutant in our oceans, releasing toxic chemicals that can prove deadly for marine life.

Whilst many feel the ban is too little too late, it may offer some comfort that many companies had already implemented changes within their own product ranges to get rid of microbeads as early as 2014 and 2015.

Loopholes in some countries allow for bio-degradable plastic beading to be used, yet the UK has stood firm on their ban of all types of plastic beading. Salt and coffee are just two examples of biodegradable ingredients that now serve the role of exfoliants within cosmetics.

Zero Waste Scotland

Zero Waste Scotland is an organisation funded by the Scottish government and European Regional Development Fund, that works to further the environmental goals that the Scottish government hopes to achieve. These goals include recycling 70% of all waste and reducing waste by 15% by the year 2025.

Zero Waste Scotland has sought to reduce the use of plastic in a number of ways. For instance, they championed the 5p bag charge, which saw plastic carrier bag usage drop by 80% within the first year alone.

They also advocate the transition to a circular economy in Scotland. Their Circular Economy Investment Fund offers grant funding to projects and businesses that have found solutions to make use of what would otherwise be considered ‘waste.’

The organisation also promotes ‘Pass it on Week’, which encourages people all over Scotland to donate or gift their unused items. Some groups get creative with this process by hosting upcycling workshops and repair cafes, but it could be as simple as holding a clothes swap.

Zero Waste Scotland has many more initiatives for people looking to reduce their carbon footprint, such as Love Food, Hate Waste. These can be found on their website. See more at https://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/ 

Deposit Return Scheme

Deposit return schemes work by charging people an initial amount on top of their drink for the packaging that it comes in. They can redeem this amount by returning it to a collection point for recycling. From there, the drinks packaging can be sorted, recycled and given a new lease of life. The Scottish government is hoping to implement this scheme in the near future.

This streamlined initiative increases the value of the materials collected, simply by ensuring that the products are correctly sorted. Plastics such as polyethene and polypropylene are separated from the get-go without consumers having to worry about the difference.

Andrew Pankhurst, Recycling Campaigns Manager for Zero Waste Scotland spoke about the Scottish government’s new initiative to introduce a deposit-return scheme across Scotland. When describing how they came up for the outline of the model they hope to implement, Mr Pankhurst said that they “were quite happy to be guided by the consultation responses [they] got from stakeholders, so the drinks industry, and also the public.”

The scheme has been perceived very positively for the most part. According to Mr Pankhurst, “the vast majority of people were like ‘put it everywhere, make the deposit quite high, we should have been doing this ten years ago.’” The deposit itself is a major factor to be decided, with proposals of between 10 and 25p. However, of the public surveyed, a resounding level of responses indicated that they would be in favour of a higher deposit in order to properly incentivise people to recycle.

While the Scottish government is yet to publicly announce a date for the rollout of this scheme, plans are much further along than in other areas in the UK. Upon being asked why Westminster hadn’t done more themselves, Mr Pankhurst made the point, “you might argue that they’ve got a lot on their plates at the moment with Brexit.” However, he also added that “conversations have taken place between the Scottish government and Westminster about if they do decide to go ahead, how we can make sure the schemes are compatible, or at least symbiotic.”

The benefits of a UK wide scheme are undeniable. Not only would the environmental benefits be far greater for the country as a whole, but we would see a much larger return economically.

Deposit return schemes have already been successfully rolled out in a number of other countries. Norway has seen enormous results from the scheme, with a staggering 97% of bottles being captured for recycling. When asked what country Zero Waste Scotland hoped to emulate when designing Scotland’s scheme, Mr Pankhurst replied that their design team would “cherry pick from all sorts of schemes to see what’s going to work best here.”

He added that “one of the major things that needs to be taken into consideration is Scotland’s geography. The centralised areas are quite easy, the more remote areas are not. Any scheme you put in place, you’re going to have to make sure it works across that geography. What do you think will actually get the highest recycling rate here and capture the materials in the highest quality state? I think they’re the two main factors.”

In an attempt to make recycling easier for households, Zero Waste Scotland is making efforts to work with local authorities across Scotland to standardise recycling, as currently, some areas will accept plastic that others do not. The Household Recycling Charter hopes to sort this and make the process much simpler.


richard lochehead.jpg
Credit: Packaging News. Richard Lochhead, the then Cabinet Secretary for Environment, demonstrating the deposit return scheme



Running plastic-less errands

Could plastic-free shopping become a reality? For some of us, remembering our reusable shopping bags and buying loose veg seems as good as it gets when it comes to trying to reduce how much plastic we end up buying when out food shopping. However, some shops are giving us a new solution. More readily available in America, shops that resemble pick and mixes for pulses, nuts and all sorts of other foods, have started popping up in the UK. These businesses are encouraging people to bring their own containers and fill them up, showing how we can reuse jars that once stored jam or pasta sauce, for cashews and couscous, in lieu of plastic wrappers that we would never use again.

Locavore, in Glasgow, is one of the first stores of this kind to be opened in Scotland, having been given £100,000 from Zero Waste Scotland. The innovative store was visited by Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, who was impressed by the ideas put in play there.

“It’s ideas like this that are at the heart of the Scottish Government’s Making Things Last Strategy, which looks to develop our circular economy and protect our environment by keeping products in use as much as possible,” Cunningham remarked.

University of Stirling answer to combining waste reduction and shopping is the Green and Blue space on campus. The shop consistently receives six tonnes of usable donations throughout the year, and that figure is continuing to rise. With bargain buys available, whether it be kitchen utensils, textbooks or clothes that you’re looking for, it’s worth popping in. You never know what you might find.

Why not donate any unwanted items to the Green and Blue space? Who knows what someone else could make of it.

What is the circular economy?

Most people are familiar with the concept of the linear economy, in which resources are taken from the land, made into something we would buy, used by us and then thrown away. However, the concept of a circular economy sees that items that would usually be discarded, are instead reinvented. Whether they are reborn as something new or repaired to serve out their previous role again; the circular economy means that we aren’t wasting materials that we already have and that we are saving natural resources that would have otherwise been exploited.

One great example of a circular economy at play are Philips and their light bulbs. Instead of selling light bulbs, Philips has a scheme in which companies essentially rent their bulbs. This way, consumers benefit from better-quality products- after all, Philips has a very clear incentive to provide long-lasting bulbs so that they don’t have to spend as much repairing them when they break. This seems almost ironic considering lightbulbs were once associated with the Phoebus Cartel and planned obsolescence.

Why the change? According to the Philips website, “simply using less is no longer enough.” Frans Van Houten, CEO and Chairman of Philips even goes as far to say that “for a sustainable world, the transition from a linear to a circular economy is essential.”

Another great example of a circular economy structure is at Lush, where customers can take back their plastic pots to be recycled. The company even has incentives where customers who take back five specially labelled plastic pots, receive a free face mask in return. Lush also sells a lot of ‘naked’ products that use no packaging whatsoever!

Talking about plastic pollution, Julian Kirby, Friends of the Earth waste campaigner said that, “to tackle it properly, you need a wholesale look at waste prevention policy.” The circular economy forces companies to do just that.

The circular economy model is one that many countries are eager to adopt due to the economic and environmental benefits it offers. It will force the public to view their consumption in a new light, inadvertently causing people to reduce their spending habits and make use of the items they already have.

Is getting rid of plastic the ultimate solution?

There’s so much that we can do to improve the way that we live our lives. Shaun Donald, Treasurer of Stirling’s vegan and vegetarian society, put it like this, “with every step that you take to be a more ethical consumer of any sort, every time you do one thing, you begin to wonder, what else can I do?” He added, “It gets addictive once you realise you have the power to make change.”

That should be the way that we see things. Yes, we should we should praise ourselves for the strides that we make, but complacency will cause us to stagnate once again.

During the numerous videos I have watched, hundreds of statistics I have read and countless conversations I have had, it became very clear that the principal problem was not all plastic. At the initial conception of this idea to write an article on plastic, I wandered through my home, feeling guilty for the plastic Tupperware and ashamed of the plastic that made up my TV. Even when I went out and bought glass Tupperware, it came with a plastic lid. The plastic seemed inescapable, surely there was no way of being truly rid of it?

But perhaps getting rid of it entirely isn’t the answer.

Writing this article, I kept coming across phrases such as ‘captured for recycling’ and ‘escapes the recycling process’, and it struck me as funny. Instead of recycling seeming like a monotonous exercise we are forced into, ‘capture’ seemed to create this sense of opportunity. Maybe that’s how we should be viewing our discarded products. Instead of seeing them as cast-offs that have outlived their time in our homes, instead, we should be seeing the potential they have beyond us.

Andrew Pankhurst said something that really made me re-evaluate my stance, “we need to have a balance, where we don’t have a knee jerk ‘let’s just get rid of plastic,’ and find we’ve arrived at a situation which is actually worse.” Perhaps plastic isn’t the answer to all our problems, but neither are the so-called ‘solutions.’

Paper straws in landfills contribute to carbon emissions as well, so maybe instead of choosing a paper straw over a plastic straw, forego the straw altogether. Humanity has reached a point of technological advancement that the answers are there. Sometimes they aren’t as obvious, some ideas might need a little funding, but they do exist.

We are already making progress. The student union targeted plastic cups on campus this year, by adding a 20p levy. Within two months, the university has seen a rise from the baseline 3% to 17% of hot drinks sales using reusable cups. That’s within a two-month period.

Recycled plastic bottles have gone on to be shoes, furniture and even used as materials in architecture, the EcoARK in Taipei just being one example. Don’t let these opportunities ‘escape’ us. Give your ‘junk’ the chance to become something more. Rehome your old desk, whether it be by selling it on or donating it. Say no to the plastics you can’t recycle; take care of the ones you can.

It’s time to stop pleading ignorance, we can no longer ignore the facts, but we can change them. Just over half of the plastic bottles in the UK are recycled, we must do better. It can be done. So let’s start doing it.


Credit: Waste Management World


Sustainability Tips

  • Reusable bottles- duh… They’ve been around for a while now, so if you haven’t already, get one! They can keep your drinks at the desired temperature for longer, save you some money in the long run (water refills are free!) and save you from the judgemental stares that plastic bottles now promise (because really, you still haven’t got one?)
  • Caffeine addicts, here’s how to still get your fix… It’s worth your time investing in one of these as well. You’d be surprised how many places now offer a discount when they see a reusable coffee cup; thanks to the Student Union, you can now get 20p off your drinks when you bring your own cup!
  • Invest in a mooncup… or at the very least, stop flushing your menstrual products! We need to start thinking about what we are flushing down the toilet as well. A staggering 2.5 million tampons are flushed down the toilet every day in the UK alone! In a comedic take on the subject, Natalie Fee describes in her TED talk “Why plastic is personal,” exactly what we should and should not be putting down our toilets. In her speech, she reveals that a third of people surveyed, admit to flushing things down the toilet that they shouldn’t be. If we know we shouldn’t, why are we still doing it?
  • Brush with bamboo… Dentists recommend that we should change out our toothbrushes every 3 months or so, that’s a lot of toothbrushes heading to landfill every year. Not only is bamboo biodegradable, but it’s also antimicrobial- meaning it kills bacteria. Make the switch and feel healthier and eco-friendlier for it!



Credit: @ecowithem_


Fact File

  • Plastic bottles take an average of 450 years to break down, and when they do, they break into tiny fragments. The fragments from a one-litre bottle could theoretically break down so much that it could in time, end up on every beach in every continent.
  • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is three times the size of France. Currents trap ocean pollution within the area between California and Hawaii. Land rubbish makes up 80% of this rubbish, whilst oil rigs, cargo ships and boaters are responsible for 20%.
  • In samples collected from Lake Erie, which spans across several states and into Canada, the American Chemical Society discovered up to 1.7 million plastic particles per square mile.
  • Think plastic production rates are falling? More plastic has been produced in the last decade, compared to whole century previous to that.
  • It is estimated that annually around one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die from ingesting plastic. 100% of marine turtles and 59% of whales have been shown in studies to have been contaminated by plastic pollution.
  • Chemicals from plastic can be found in the air, dust and food.
  • Daily, an estimated eight million pieces of plastic end up in the ocean.
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Brig Secretary 2019-2020. Studying Politics BA(Hons).


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