GEP Student Blog: How does plastic pollution affect our planet and why do people keep buying single-use plastics?
Plastic: The Good, the Bad and the Questionable
Plastic may be one of the most commonly used materials nowadays, but its mass production only began about 70 years ago after the end of the Second World War . Since then there has been tremendous growth in its usage, but have we considered the implications of unlimited global use of this human-made chemical compound?
Plastic is not all bad. Many of the early uses of plastics had a positive
environmental impact. The swapping of ivory with a synthetic compound called “celluloid” in pool ball production helped prevent the extinction of the Asian elephant . Today, lightweight plastic used in the construction of vehicles helps reduce transportation-related CO2 emissions. Plastic packaging has been useful in reducing food waste, delivering life-saving medicine to remote locations and sustaining clean drinking water supplies in developing countries . Plastics have been instrumental to the process of many modern scientific discoveries too. NASA scientists have found that plastic is better at blocking radiation than natural materials such as aluminium . And while this discovery is mainly considered for spaceship-building now, it may prove useful to future generations here.
Durability – one of the qualities that makes plastic a sought after material – is also what transforms it into an environmental threat. Plastic is forever. While there are an array of estimates on how long it takes to disintegrate, most plastic in landfills will never have the right conditions to decompose . With that in mind, imagining the sheer amount of rubbish that each of us leaves behind on this planet is staggering. This accumulation of plastic debris in the environment is what we commonly refer to as plastic pollution .
We’ve already observed adverse short-term effects that plastic pollution has on natural habitats, animals and humans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of the most commonly cited examples of our plastic waste travelling far into the ocean & destroying the natural habitats of marine animals, birds and mammals living on remote islands . Photos of dolphins tangled in abandoned fishing nets, sea turtles’ deformed bodies growing around six pack rings & decomposing adolescent albatross corpses full of plastic caps have circulated in the media for a while. Despite this publicity and multiple NGO campaigns, recent reports show that the density of plastic waste continues to expand exponentially .
A common misconception is that marine pollution is caused solely by littering, but there are two other major contributors: 1) Plastics (such as cosmetic microbeads and synthetic clothing fibres) flowing into the ocean through our sewerage system and 2) Wind blowing our diligently sorted rubbish off the landfill to water bodies . Plastic pollution has quite literally hit close to home recently with studies uncovering that a river in the wider Manchester area has the highest level of microplastics in the world . This raises concerns for human health, as microparticles formed in the process of plastic decomposition are frequently ingested by fish, which end up on our plates.
Nobody wants to harm marine life with their rubbish, but given that is what plastic pollution is doing, shouldn’t we try to limit plastic consumption to necessity? Sounds good? Well, I tried. I’ve been using reusable shopping bags for years and rarely ever buy drinks in plastic bottles, so I decided to go one step further by avoiding all single-use packaging. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that my budget didn’t allow for this. As a student, I buy the cheapest options & frequently plan my meals around what is reduced. Companies, however, look for convenience when packaging, not eco-friendliness. I was forced to either buy plastic film with my 6 cheap apples or pay almost triple the price to get individually priced apples unpackaged. I encountered similar problems with multi-buy cans of tuna, onions, herbs…
My experience is a good example of what social scientists call the individualisation of responsibility  and illustrates the downsides of this approach when it comes to tackling environmental issues. While making effort to personally avoid unnecessary use of plastic is not a bad thing, critical scholars argue that meaningful change will not take place until there is a shift in policy that would actively discourage companies from selling products wrapped in excessive packaging. Simply put, if there was a levy, similar to the Climate Change Levy  for example, companies would think twice before wrapping multi-buy products in plastic for marketing purposes.
As the Global Environmental Politics researcher, Dr. Lucy Ford, argues, civil society has an important role here, as global social movements are in a position to challenge how the world economy works . Civil society needs to actively and collectively push governments to put the environment first, while we also continue to make cautious purchases as individuals. There are various ways to make our voices heard – from contacting our MPs , through initiating and signing petitions , to naming and shaming companies on social media. Care for the environment is not a niche interest in modern society, as the numbers indicate – whether we talk about the close to 500, 000 UK citizens who have recently signed Greenpeace’s petition urging supermarkets to go plastic-free , or the thousands of people sharing their discontent on social media under the hashtag #pointlesspackaging .
Our voices matter. Four years ago the UK was steadily increasing its usage of disposable plastic bags at a rate of +2.3% per year . Three years ago, Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP)’s research found that a month after the introduction of the 5p plastic bag charge in England, 39% of participants supported the introduction of tax on excessive packaging . Fast forward to today, WRAP has just announced its new campaign to create a circular economy of plastics – The UK Plastic Pact, which has already been signed by the Welsh and Scottish Governments as well as private sector giants like Coca-Cola, Tesco and P&G . It is the accumulated action of civil society, organised in local and global movements, that dictates the changes we see in environmental policy. The opportunity to impact on plastic pollution is not limited to what we pick up from the shelves as consumers. We are the drivers of societal change.
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