This month marks the 12th annual Plastic Free July,® a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution.
This article will cover the ways plastic waste affects the environment, including how it contributes towards global warming, how Westminster City Council has committed itself to reducing carbon emissions through its Net Zero initiative, and how your own business can take part.
How does plastic waste affect the environment?
Plastic waste can affect the environment in several ways, starting with the actual production process.
Most plastics are made from fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. Oil or gas is refined into ethane and propane, which are then heated to become ethylene and propylene. These materials are combined together to create different polymers, where they are melted and then cut into small pellets. These pellets are shipped to factories to be melted and moulded into water bottles, food packaging, and more. There are also greenhouse gas emissions associated with collecting, recycling or disposing of plastic waste.
As can be seen, manufacturing plastics generates significant greenhouse gas emissions, from the fossil fuel used to manufacture it and energy required to heat the materials to the fuel it takes to ship the pellets to factories and then the plastics to their final destinations. Evidence shows that producing one tonne of plastic generates up to 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Creating carbon dioxide at these levels will make it difficult to achieve goals to decarbonise and attain Net Zero emissions. Meeting Net Zero carbon emissions means we have balanced the emissions we produce and the emissions we remove from the atmosphere through emissions-saving activities and offsetting.
A number of plastics are also difficult to recycle due to the different ways they are created. For example, they are composed of varying types of polymers, all of which have different melting points. Added to this are the different additives and dyes that give plastics specific characteristics. This makes it difficult to break down the various types of plastics during the recycling process.
Bio-based and compostable plastics are especially challenging to recycle. They need to be broken down by microorganisms, which only happens if the plastic is collected and composted in carefully controlled, high-temperature specialised composting facilities. Most composting plants in the UK cannot process this material properly so the bio-based plastics remain after the composting process and have to be incinerated as general waste. If they end up in landfills without enough oxygen to break them down, they can last for centuries and release greenhouse gases. This negates their purpose to begin with. Similar to oil and gas-based plastics, bio-based plastics also pose a threat to wildlife when they are thrown into the environment.
This leads us to the litter element of plastics. Studies show that plastics make up 80% of all marine debris, and plastic litter has been found in the digestive organs of more than 90% of the world’s sea birds. At the rate at which plastic litter is accumulating, it’s predicted that by 2050, the mass of plastic in the world’s oceans will exceed the mass of all the fish species that inhabit them.
While it might be tempting to do away with plastics altogether, it is important to note that not all plastics are necessarily destructive, especially when they are used to help reduce other environmental issues, such as preventing food waste and spillage.
Additionally, evidence suggests that some animals, such as caterpillars, have gut microbes that can biodegrade at least some types of traditionally non-biodegradable plastics. This discovery could lead to new innovations in plastic recycling.
Tips for businesses to reduce plastic waste
Many businesses are committing to Plastic Free July® in an effort to reduce plastic waste and ultimately contribute to net zero emissions.
The first step to reduce plastic waste is to consider decreasing plastic use in general. This creates less demand for plastic, which means less emissions during the production process. There is potential for litter, and less need to treat and recycle.
To reduce your plastic use, make sure to only order what you need. Also consider working with suppliers to decrease the amount of plastic packaging they use. You can also choose other (natural) packaging options which are made from recycled materials, such as paper and cardboard. Whatever packaging you use, always think about ways to reuse and recycle it.
Another important tip, especially for the food service industry, is to avoid using plastic cups and cutlery. Replacing plastics with alternatives such as glass, metal and paper can also make a difference.
Buying second hand is another way to reduce plastic waste. Businesses can find good-as-new items via retailers of refurbished appliances and electronics, for example.
When plastic waste is unavoidable, it is crucial to know how to properly separate it for recycling. Our plastic waste guide is a helpful tool to help you get started.
Finally, consider using a sustainable collection service that uses electric vehicles. This helps to reduce carbon emissions and push us towards carbon net zero.
Westminster City Council is committed to reducing our carbon emissions
Westminster City Council has announced its commitment to Net Zero carbon by 2030 for its own organisation, with the rest of the city to hit the target by 2040.
As part of its commitment to Net Zero, Westminster City Council’s Commercial Waste Services has partnered with Veolia to roll out a fully electric waste collection fleet of vehicles. This will lead to an 89% reduction of CO2e emissions compared to a diesel fleet, in line with Westminster City Council’s carbon net zero by 2030 plans.
Westminster City Council’s Commercial Waste Services is also committed to educating local businesses about proper waste management, including how to separate recycling, food and general waste.
We perform a free waste audit for Westminster businesses to give them an overview of their waste production and actionable advice for improving their waste management.
While Plastic Free July® is an important global initiative, we know that continuing our commitment to proper waste management must go beyond this month. This is why Westminster City Council Commercial Waste Services has created resources to help businesses throughout Westminster, including how to present waste for collection and what waste goes where.