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Goal 13: Life Below Water
OCEAN PLASTIC: THE FACTS
Only 9% of plastic is recycled, and other reasons to turn your back on single use
By hannah rochell
19 october 2020
It’s estimated by scientists that over 5 trillion items of plastic currently litter our oceans, and according to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, thanks to man-made pollution and the fact that we are overfishing at a completely unsustainable rate.
Which is why at #TOGETHERBAND, one of our principal commitments has always been to tackle the plastic problem head on by using plastic waste from the ocean and turning it into something positive and useful that you will treasure and keep, like our #TOGETHERBANDS and our new #TOGETHERBAND ❤ Ocean Bottle collaboration.
But what is plastic? And why should we be so worried about the fact that so much of it is littering our oceans? Here’s everything you need to know.
Plastic ain’t fantastic
Plastic - or more accurately the plural, plastics, because there are different types - are mostly synthetic, which means they are man-made in a factory rather than occurring organically in nature. The word plastic refers to the Greek “plastikos”, which means it is fit for moulding. The fact that you can mould plastics into pretty much anything you can think of, from bottles and bank notes to clothes and cars, accounts for its unrivaled popularity with manufacturers since the 1950s.
What is plastic made from?
Most of the world’s plastic is made from fossil fuels such as crude oil and coal which are not renewable sources - once we run out, it’s gone forever! Producing plastic is also a very energy intensive process giving it a high carbon footprint. It is possible to make plastics from renewable sources including vegetable fats and oils, corn starch and sugarcane - these are often referred to as bioplastics - however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are easily biodegradable at the end of their use.
How long does plastic hang around?
Everything - including man made plastic - degrades at some point. But plastic can take up to 500 years to decompose, and all the while it will be releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. Not only that, it will simply break down into microplastics which will still hang around polluting our soils and oceans indefinitely. A plastic can only be classed as biodegradable if it breaks down into harmless fragments that can be returned to nature and even then, it usually only happens under very specific commercial conditions, which means they have to be disposed of carefully (and not always easily). The best option to look for is compostable rather than biodegradable; potato starch bags, for example, are harmlessly broken down by microorganisms in any garden compost bin within a year.
But if we recycle our plastic, what’s the problem?
Just because you put your single use plastic in a recycling bin, doesn’t mean it will actually be recycled - because startlingly, only 9% of plastic is recycled, according to a 2019 report in the journal Science Advances. 12% is incinerated, which releases harmful emissions and causes air pollution, and the remaining 79% is either languishing in landfill or is littering our environment. To add to the problem, most wealthy countries ship their recycling to some of the poorest countries in the world, who often don’t have the capacity to deal with it. In 2018, for example, the US alone unloaded the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of plastic recycling to developing countries.
The misuse of single use plastic
Common ocean plastic items - and ones that you as a citizen have the most control over using or not using - include plastic bottles, food wrappers, straws and stirrers (which were recently banned in the UK), plastic bags and bottle tops. Ask yourself this: were the couple of minutes you spent enjoying eating a yogurt worth it for the hundreds of years the pot will still be causing environmental damage? By switching to reusable bottles, choosing unwrapped foods and using compostable bags (and yes, you can buy yoghurt in glass jars), you’ll be doing your bit to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the sea.
Why is plastic such a big problem in the ocean?
UV rays break many types of plastic items down into microplastics, so while a plastic bottle in landfill probably won’t catch many rays and will take (literally) ages to decompose, one in the ocean can break down into tiny particles in as little as a year. These particles are then ingested by sealife and fish, which are in turn eaten by other birds and animals, including, of course, humans. It’s not yet fully understood what effect eating microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics will have on us and them, but a recent scientific study found them present in human organs.
I’ve seen products that say they’re BPA free, but what is BPA?
Bisphenol A - or BPA - is a chemical used to make plastic which, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency “is a reproductive, developmental and systemic toxicant in animal studies”. And it’s been found in microplastics in humans. It’s still unclear whether the levels found have a significant effect on our health, but some studies have suggested that it may have an adverse effect on fertility and reproductive systems.
The solutions to the plastic problem
Switch from single use plastic to reusable items whenever possible. As well as the obvious water bottles, shopping bags and coffee cups, try other areas of your life, such as washable period products, cotton pads and face masks. Check that the materials that your reusable products are made from, too - natural materials like bamboo and organic cotton or recycled PET (made from plastic bottles) are ideal. Our #TOGETHERBANDBOTTLEs are made from BPA free & recyclable plastic, silicone rubber, upcycled ocean plastic and stainless steel.