Plastic waste is a huge topic, so we’ve broken it down into useful sections that we hope will inspire you to commit to reducing your own plastic consumption, either as a business or an individual.
1. What is plastic waste?
Plastic waste, or plastic pollution, is ‘the accumulation of plastic objects (e.g.: plastic bottles and much more) in the Earth’s environment that adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat, and humans.’
It also refers to the significant amount of plastic that isn’t recycled and ends up in landfill or, in the developing world, thrown into unregulated dump sites. In the UK, for example, over 5 million tonnes of plastic is consumed each year — and yet only 1 quarter of it is recycled.
The three quarters that isn’t recycled enters our environment, polluting our oceans and causing damage to our ecosystem. In less developed countries, the majority of plastic waste eventually ends up in the ocean, meaning that marine animals are especially at risk.
So much of what we consume is made of plastic (such as plastic bottles and food containers) because it’s inexpensive, yet durable. However, plastic is slow to degrade (taking over 400 years or more) due to its chemical structure, which presents a huge challenge.
Reducing plastic consumption and raising awareness about plastic recycling is crucial if we are to overcome the problem of plastic waste and pollution on our planet.
Our guide, ‘9 Quick Tips for Reducing Waste’ is a great place to start. Click below to download your copy today.
2. Why has plastic become a global problem?
Since the late 20th century, we have depended on plastic as an affordable, versatile and durable material.
However, since the majority of plastic materials take centuries to degrade, all of the plastic that has been sent to landfills in the UK still exists — and yet we’re still producing and consuming more of it.
That plastic has to go somewhere, and it’s frequently either dumped carelessly on land or in rivers in developing countries, before ending up in the ocean, where it threatens marine life.
The fact is, we simply can’t cope with the amount of plastic on our planet — nor the amount that continues to be produced. For this reason, our attitudes and behaviours towards plastic must change to ensure a safe and healthy future for our planet.
3. Plastic waste in the ocean
Plastic waste in our oceans is a global problem, but how does our rubbish enter the water in the first place?
In many cases, specifically in more developed countries, plastic waste is disposed of responsibly and sent to facilities to be sorted, recycled or recovered.
However, plastic waste generated in developing countries typically ends up in open unregulated dump sites, or is thrown into rivers and streams. Plastics from dump sites can be blown by winds into bodies of water, such as nearby rivers, before being carried out to sea.
Another problem is the volume of plastic that is exported to developing nations from Europe, the US, and Japan. Recycling standards in developing countries do not compare to standards deployed in the developed world and, as such, releasing plastics into the environment is causing significant environmental damage.
How much plastic goes into the ocean?
Each year, approximately eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans. Some researchers predict that this figure could double by 2025, while others suggest there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
Over time, ocean currents pull rubbish into the centre, resulting in huge gyres of plastic developing (the largest is in the North Pacific, between Hawaii and California, which contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic).
Eventually, this pulling motion in the gyre causes plastic objects to break down into multiple smaller pieces, polluting the environment and making plastic waste easily swallowed by marine animals.
At Westminster City Council Commercial Waste Services, we ensure that all of your waste is handled responsibly. Download the infographic below to learn more.
4. How does plastic waste affect marine life?
According to the United Nations, ‘at least 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris, and as much as 80 percent of that litter is plastic.’
Marine animals can either get caught in plastic objects (such as the plastic rings that hold drinks cans together), ingest the plastic, and/or be exposed to plastic chemicals, which can alter their physiology over time.
A recent study found that ‘sea turtles that ingest just 14 pieces of plastic have an increased risk of death.’ In particular, young turtles are at a higher risk because they tend to drift with the same currents that attract plastic waste, and they are less selective than their elders about what they eat.
The problem with plastic microbeads
Plastic microbeads, which are commonly found in toiletries such as facial scrubs, toothpastes, and shower gels can also wreak havoc on marine life. Most sewage treatment facilities cannot capture these beads from incoming sewage and so they are discharged directly into water courses. The BBC explains that ‘They do not degrade over time and can transport toxic chemicals into marine organisms.’
Fortunately, the UK banned the sale of products containing plastic microbeads in July 2018. However, the BBC also states that ‘Some countries and states have loopholes that allow microbeads made from biodegradable plastic to continue to be used’. In other words, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
5. How much plastic waste is there in the world?
Six decades ago, mass production of plastics began — accelerating so rapidly that it has created 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic — and over 90% of it isn’t recycled.
As of 2018, approximately 380 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide each year. Our planet can’t cope with this amount of plastic polluting the environment, and calls to reduce plastic pollution and consumption have increased in urgency in recent years.
6. Which country produces the most plastic waste?
Currently, China produces the largest amount of plastic waste by a significant margin, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, which all make the top five.
This list is hardly surprising, since so many of the products we manufacture globally are made of plastic, or contain plastic components — neither of which can be recycled.
Confused about what waste goes where? Download our guide below.
7. What are the prime causes of plastic waste?
1. Plastic is cheap, readily available, and its use is widespread
Since plastic is an affordable and durable material, it can be found in everything from packaging materials to plastic bottles, straws to plastic bags, and much more.
Until businesses start to utilise more environmentally-friendly, alternative materials (such as paper), the cycle of producing and disposing of plastic will continue.
2. The world’s population is growing — and so is urbanisation
Put simply, the more of us there are in the world, the greater the demand for cheap materials and in turn, the more plastic we use to excess.
To illustrate this, in the first decade of this century, more plastic has been produced than ever due to rapid urbanisation and, in turn, demand.
3. We have a disposable mentality when it comes to plastic
Plastic items typically have a very short lifespan — think carrier bags, water bottles, straws, and food containers. And because they’re so cheap to make, we don’t value them enough to hang on to individual items.
Not only that, but the disposal of plastic is often mismanaged — so again, it ends up in landfills.
4. Plastic takes over 400 years to decompose
The chemical bonds that make-up plastic are strong and made to last. The decomposition rate of plastic can vary depending on the type, however, this typically ranges from 50 to 600 years.
In other words, according to the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency in the United States), almost every bit of plastic ever made and sent to landfill or dumped in the environment still exists — a sobering thought for us all.
As new plastic items are manufactured every day, the cycle repeats.
5. Marine shipping and fishing industries
The shipping and fishing industries are also responsible for contributing towards plastic waste and pollution, particularly in our oceans.
Plastic waste is often washed to shores from ships and nets used for fishing, which — you guessed it — are usually made from plastic.
Not only does this plastic pollute the water, but marine animals can become trapped in nets and/or swallow the toxic particles.
Overall, the shipping and fishing industries have a lot to answer for when it comes to plastic pollution.
8. Some of the different types of plastic to be aware of
Bioplastics — sounds good, right?
Especially when most plastics come from fossil fuels. Bioplastics, on the other hand, may come from plant-based sources, such as flaxseeds — and companies are often eager to use this as a selling point.
However, as the 2015 United Nations report states, once the polymer is created, the material properties are the same. In other words, the resulting material is no better than any other form of plastic.
Bioplastic or not, it’s still wise to cut down on our plastic consumption wherever possible. Bioplastics also can’t be recycled — nor can they be composted.
Compostable plastic is very similar to biodegradable plastic, except to achieve ‘compostable’ status, it must be monitored and verified by an independent third party organisation.
However, being virtually the same as biodegradable plastic, compostable plastic still poses the same challenges when it ends up in our oceans. Nearly all UK organic waste treatment facilities can’t treat this material and will take it out as a residue sent for incineration or landfill.
The above three types of plastic all emphasise that the best way to reduce plastic waste and pollution is to simply cut down. More specifically, we should be focusing on eliminating the use of single use, unrecyclable, and not recycled plastic (think takeaway cups, polystyrene food trays like ‘clam shell’ boxes and carrier bags).
Biodegradable plastics (plastics that can be broken down into carbon dioxide, water, and minerals through natural processes) are another seemingly appealing alternative.
To use the term ‘biodegradable’, products must conform to national or international standards. In Europe, for example, for a plastic product to be deemed biodegradable it must:
- Not contain high levels of heavy metals
- 90% of the plastic must break down into CO2 within six months of being exposed to natural processes (including sunlight and hydrolysis)
- 12 weeks after exposure, 90% of the plastic leftover must be able to pass through a mesh measuring 2 x 2 mm
- The final material must not prove toxic to plants
Despite this, the speed of degradation depends heavily on the type of plastic and the environment it’s in. It often does not degrade properly, as highlighted in this article.
Treatment plants for organic waste, such as in-vessel composters or anaerobic digestion facilities cannot treat these plastics, since they either disrupt the treatment process or simply take too long to biodegrade. These plastics also need a certain constant temperature range for a prolonged period in time in order to breakdown. In reality, the ocean’s temperature is vastly different, which will affect the rate at which the plastic biodegrades.
Bioplastics don’t solve the problem of plastic in the ocean, or prevent harmful microplastics from being produced.
Once in the ocean, UV radiation and wave action helps to break down plastic. However, once the plastic is submerged in deep water, where it can become covered in biofilm or buried in sediment (only 4%-5% of ocean plastics are found on beaches and shorelines), the speed at which the plastic can break down falls significantly.
The term ‘biodegradable plastic’ is clearly misleading, and certainly not a quick solution to tackling plastic pollution.
9. What are the benefits of reducing plastic waste?
Reducing our plastic waste boasts numerous benefits, not the least of which include preserving natural resources, protecting the environment, and saving us money.
The benefits of reducing plastic consumption include:
- Preventing pollution by lessening the amount of new raw materials used
- Saves energy
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute towards climate change
- Reduces the amount of waste that needs to be recycled or, in developing countries, sent to landfills/incinerators
- Saves money, since reusable items work out cheaper than constantly purchasing more plastic
Claridge’s is one of London’s most famous 5-star hotels. It often hosts royal figures and A-class celebrities.
Like many businesses they have faced challenges with their waste management that they have had to overcome.
Our case study on Claridge’s hotel highlights the waste challenges faced by every business. Download the case study to find out more.
10. How can you help to reduce plastic waste?
To reduce your business’ or personal output of plastic waste, try switching from plastic materials to paper or glass wherever you can, as these materials are widely recycled.
Reducing (or ideally cutting out altogether) your consumption of plastic water bottles, plastic bags, and straws can also make a huge difference.
The following are some easy switches that you can make in your daily life:
- Carrying a metal water bottle with you to avoid purchasing more plastic bottles
- Buying second hand — you can often find good-as-new items via retailers of refurbished office furniture. See here for a case study.
- Using reusable bags when you go shopping, such as canvas tote bags
- Opting for products that use less packaging — your business’ shopping and procurement is one way to make a significant difference over time
- If you haven’t already, switch to paper, glass or metal alternatives (preferable it being a reusable option)
For more tips on how to reduce waste, download our guide.
Top tips for businesses to reduce plastic waste
As a responsible business, we are sure that you recycle what you can, sorting out paper, card, glass, and plastics. But how can you increase the chances of these items actually being recycled?
Avoiding contaminating your mixed recycling with food or other substances is one way to do this; everything that you sort for recycling should be clean and dry.
Aside from this, consider areas in your business where you could make more eco-friendly choices. Plastic bottles, straws, and cutlery all add to the unnecessary amount of plastic waste created daily.
You could also get milk delivered in glass bottles, which can be reused and recycled, instead of discarding all these single use plastic milk bottles. Many milk rounds also offer fruit juices, too, meaning there’s something for everyone in the office to enjoy.
At present, only 4% of the British population get their milk delivered. Incorporating this into your business is a quick and easy way to be more environmentally friendly. Find your local milkman here.
Why not try sticking our waste management posters up around your office to raise awareness about good recycling practices? Click on the button below to download them today.
11. Ensure you’re using a responsible waste collector
Your commercial waste collector may claim that they recycle a large percentage of your waste, but this can be extremely difficult to trace. In fact, the compliance reporting of London sorting facilities and private commercial waste collectors paints a very different picture.
This information is freely accessible on the WRAP recycling portal — just register your details to download performance reports for numerous recycling sorting facilities and collectors.
Most specifically, the reports show that much of the recycling collected from businesses is heavily contaminated. Therefore, it’s likely that many of your mixed recycling items don’t get recycled at all.
Pay special attention to the reporting categories ‘Average non-target % of composition’ and ‘Average non-recyclable % of composition’; the higher the percentage, the worse the collector performs. This demonstrates the amount collected that was simply thrown out as general waste for disposal because of its poor quality.
You can read our page to find out more about if your plastic waste is being recycled.
12. How do Westminster City Council CWS recycle plastic?
At Westminster City Council Commercial Waste Services, our way of managing plastics is heavily scrutinised, transparent, and completely auditable from start to finish.
We collect plastics as part of mixed recycling, before segregating them at a local facility in Southwark. Once separated, different types of plastics go to dedicated plastic recyclers to minimise waste.
For example, rigid plastics go to Veolia Rainham for further sorting into different plastic grades. Sorted milk bottles are then recycled at Veolia’s Dagenham facility, where they are turned into pellets for new packaging.
Film-based plastics are recycled in mainland Europe, such as at CEDO in The Netherlands, where they’re turned into bin liners.
Watch the video to find out more about how Veolia’s recycling facilities work.
Recycling plastic waste can be done creatively as well though. For example, see our initiative from last year’s festive season where we partnered with Veolia and the Heart of London Business Alliance.
13. On a larger scale – how can waste be better managed?
Businesses and individuals can make a concerted effort to reduce the amount of plastic they purchase, use, and discard. Small habitual changes, such as those listed above, can make a positive difference by reducing the amount of plastic pollution.
However, on a larger scale, recycling sorting facilities must also adhere to strict guidelines. There should also be greater visibility over where every single bit of plastic goes after being put into mixed recycling.
Responsibility, traceability, and transparency are key to ensuring waste is respected and can be utilised as a potential future resource wherever possible.
Large companies, such as supermarkets, must also adapt by changing the way their products are packaged. A north London supermarket has recently become the first in Britain to introduce plastic-free zones. This follows the first supermarket in the world to feature a plastic-free aisle in Amsterdam the previous year.
Although attitudes towards plastic waste are changing, it’s crucial to build upon this momentum to safeguard our planet’s future.
14. Plastic waste facts
In 2017, scientists were shocked to discover that 6.3 billion tons out of 6.9 billion tons of plastic never made it to a recycling bin. And that’s not the only figure that we should be concerned by:
1. Over two million tonnes of plastic waste has been dumped in our oceans globally this year so far
2. In the North Pacific ocean, there are six times more items of plastic debris than plankton
3. Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced worldwide
4. Of that 8.3 billion tonnes, only 9% has been recycled
5. In 2017, Kenya banned the use and sale of plastic bags altogether — and many other countries are now following suit
6. However, worldwide, 2 million plastic bags are still being used every minute
7. Plastic kills over 1.1 million seabirds and animals each year
15. Raising awareness for plastic waste
Raising awareness is crucial if we are to overcome the challenges of plastic waste and pollution.
Documentaries and TV series’ such as the BBC’s Blue Planet II, presented by David Attenborough, have helped to bring the issue of plastic waste to the forefront. However, there’s still much to overcome to change attitudes and behaviours towards plastic, especially in our ‘disposable’ culture.
At Westminster City Council Commercial Waste Services, our festive initiative, partnered with Veolia and the Heart of London Business Alliance, to raise awareness through creative recycling is one of the many ways we’re raising the importance of recycling in London.
To help, you can start by introducing more sustainable practices and attitudes towards plastic in your business.
Click below to download our guide on 9 tips for reducing business waste and most importantly, plastic waste.