30 July, 2023

There is a silent killer in our midst. It’s in our food, water supplies, clothes, and bodies, masquerading as useful products that we use daily.  

As a matter of fact, you’re probably holding it right now. It goes by several names, like Polyethylene Terephthalate and Polyvinyl Chloride, but for most of us, it’s simply known as plastic.  

This Plastic Free July, we’re looking at some of the small steps we can take to tackle this big problem. 

How bad is the plastic waste problem? 

Believe it or not, there was a time when plastic was seen as a solution to many of our everyday problems. Made mostly from crude oil, plastic is highly versatile, lightweight and durable, which makes it an attractive option for many industries. But it is a disaster for the environment because microorganisms struggle to break it down.  

To make things worse, our overreliance on plastic has also coincided with the rise of single-use plastic culture (such as bags, bottles, straws and cutlery), which has threatened our environment and health. So, in short, plastic pollution is a major problem.  

Here’s the longer answer:

  • Microplastics, tiny particles of plastic, have infiltrated various ecosystems. A study found that the River Thames in London had one of the highest recorded levels of microplastic pollution among rivers worldwide, with over 80% of its water containing microplastics.  
  • Plastic pollution poses risks to wildlife. Thousands of marine animals, including seabirds, dolphins, and turtles, suffer from entanglement or ingestion of plastic, leading to injury, suffocation, and death. 

The impact of plastic pollution on our environment 

In 2020, global plastic production was around 367 million metric tonnes, generating approximately 29 million tonnes of plastic waste. Around 9% of this waste is recycled, 12% incinerated, and the rest goes to landfill or is dumped directly into the environment. Over time, plastics disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics.   

Microplastics are increasingly gathering in agricultural soil. This directly introduces them to the environment and our food supply, including sugar, salt, honey, beer and seafood. Microplastics have also been found in humans – for example, the placenta, breastmilk and the lungs. A recent Dutch study found that 17 of 22 human blood samples contained microplastics.   

Can plastic cause breast cancer? 

Studies have yet to demonstrate a link between microplastics and breast cancer risk, but such a link is feasible. Microplastics often contain mixtures of EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals), which mimic oestrogen and can interfere with hormone function. Worryingly, ingesting microplastics can cause inflammation and irritation, potentially leading to DNA damage and cancer.   

What can you do? 

The scale of the plastic problem in the UK is big, but it isn’t something we can’t overcome. Here is a list of five easy steps to help set you off on your journey to ditch the plastic: 

  1. Buy a reusable water bottle: These bottles are an inexpensive alternative to single-use bottled water. They can easily be refilled with tap water.
  2. Always carry a reusable bag: Plastic bags are one of the biggest pollution culprits but one of the easiest problems to solve. Instead of picking up a new plastic bag every time you make a purchase, get yourself some reusable bags. Keep them handy for your grocery and shopping needs.
  3. Say no to plastic straws: Switch to reusable alternatives like stainless steel or bamboo straws. 
  4. Pack your lunch in reusable containers: When it comes to lunchtime, the first thought on everyone’s mind is getting in a nutritious meal to help power them through the rest of the day. But this can also lead to a lot of rubbish. Try packing your lunch in non-plastic reusable containers and cutlery.
  5. Support local businesses and farmers’ markets: Locally sourced produce is often fresher, grown with little-to-no pesticides and not wrapped in plastic!

Is the UK doing enough? 

With that being said, these handy tips should not distract from the need for environmental policy changes and the introduction of plastic reduction schemes to tackle the plastic problem.  

Despite the introduction of plastic bag charges in 2015, the UK still uses approximately 5 million tonnes of plastic each year, with about 50% being single-use plastic items discarded shortly after use. 

The UK government set a target of eliminating all “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042 and to “work towards” only recyclable, reusable, compostable plastic being sold by 2025. They are still debating which schemes they will introduce to help us reach those targets.  

Scotland is expected to launch its highly anticipated Deposit Return Scheme in October 2025. The scheme encourages responsible behaviour by allowing people to pay a small deposit of 20p when purchasing a drink in a single-use container. They then receive a refund when returning the empty bottle or can. Deposit return schemes have proven successful in various countries, aiding the fight against climate change and litter reduction. 

What are countries around the world doing? 

Canada

In a significant step towards combating plastic pollution, Canada made a groundbreaking declaration in May 2021, labelling plastic as a “toxic” substance. This declaration marked the most ambitious action any country took in the fight against plastic waste. 

As a result, Canada legally established the path for banning various single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, cutlery, food service ware, stir sticks, and straws by the end of this year. Additionally, the ban will extend to plastic ring carriers, which pose a severe threat to marine life, by the end of 2024. 

Egypt

In a commendable effort to combat plastic pollution, Egypt has taken proactive measures by establishing multiple social enterprises. Among them is Banlastic, which aims to address the issue of single-use plastic through workshops, training programs, beach clean-ups, and environmental events. Their mission is to provide alternative solutions to reduce plastic waste. Banlastic has successfully collected and managed over 10,000 kilograms of plastic waste.  

In March 2021, Egypt’s Minister of Environment, Yasmine Fouad, announced a partnership between Banlastic and the World Bank with the shared objective of reducing plastic waste along Egypt’s coastal regions. 

Kenya

GjePge Makers, a startup based in Nairobi, Kenya, has developed a remarkable building material using recycled plastic and sand. This innovative creation is not only lightweight and cost-effective, but it is also stronger than concrete!  

The Kenyan government has also taken significant measures by banning plastic bags in commercial and household packaging and prohibiting visitors from bringing single-use plastics into protected areas across the country. 

Netherlands

In the Netherlands, manufacturers and importers are responsible for funding and coordinating the collection and recycling of packaging materials. An annual requirement is to increase the proportion of recycled packaging materials progressively. Additionally, EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) containers and cups are banned, and so are free plastic bags. 

Norway

Norway’s Pollution Control Act effectively tackles littering and marine plastic pollution. The policy, which incentivises consumers and companies to recycle, has led to an impressive 88% recycling rate for plastic bottles. Norway has allocated 1.4 billion NOK (equivalent to around £102.5 million) to combat marine litter and microplastics. 

Find out more

Plastic Free July is an amazing opportunity to take stock of our use of plastic and helpful habits that we can adopt in our everyday lives, but the key is to use this as a starting point for your journey. Plastic is everywhere, but so are affordable, sustainable alternatives. Hopefully, we’ve given you enough to help you ditch the plastic this month and beyond. Get in touch and let us know some of your favourite tips for making the switch! 

Read our other Plastic Free July blog on the chemical cocktails polluting our rivers and how we can protect our health and wildlife. 

Or, if this blog has inspired you, please consider donating to help prevent breast cancer. Your donation can provide vital funds for our animal-free research into breast cancer prevention. 



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