Plastic Free July - Why Is It Important?
Plastic Free July is a great concept, aimed at spreading awareness of the environmental effects of plastic pollution.
It's not the be all and end all of environmental activity, but it's a fantastic start at educating the broader public who aren't knowledgeable about the world around us.
In this blog, we're going to go over some of the reasons behind why Plastic Free July is a good start.
What Is Plastic?
It might sound like a dumb question, but it's key to understand exactly what plastic is before we can start to go 'free' from it.
Plastic materials are made from polymers, which are long chains of repeating molecular sequences.
A common plastic, Polypropylene, has the molecular structure below.
Conventional plastics, such as polypropylene, are produced from fossil fuels. They also cannot biodegrade, which means that microplastics and nanoplastics are formed as opposed to natural components such as CO2 and water.
Some of the most commonly produced plastics in the world are PET (polyethylene terephthalate), HDPE and LDPE (high density and low density polyethylene) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride).
Plastic can also be produced by bio based sources, as well as being able to biodegrade. These plastics are called 'bioplastics'.
It's what we, and other businesses, use to replace conventional plastic with. This leads to lower carbon footprints and decreased environmental pressures.
What we know as 'plastic' actually refers to conventional plastic, and not this class of bioplastics.
Why Is Reducing Plastic In Everyday Life A Good Thing?
Now know a little about what plastic is, we can discuss the reasons behind wanting to cut it out of daily life.
Non biodegradable plastic does not break down into CO2 and water.
Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, eventually forming microplastics (pieces of plastic less than 5mm in all dimensions), and then nanoplastics (pieces of plastic less than 100 nanometers in all dimensions).
Mechanisms that commonly occur in the natural environment include thermal degradation, UV degradation and hydrolysis (reaction with water).
Another technicality is that non biodegradable plastics also have the potential to biodegrade due to organisms adapting to their surroundings.
This rate of degradation compared to abiotic methods is extremely slow and based on the microorganisms local to the plastic. This is why non biodegradable plastics are called as such.
Biodegradation is just the degradation of a material via microorganisms, which convert the material into natural components such as CO2 and water.
The crucial thing, therefore, is to ensure that no plastic enters the natural environment at all, regardless of what it's made from, or it's potential to biodegrade.
The reason cutting back on plastic is important, is that the current waste management systems cannot sufficiently deal with the quantities of plastic being thrown away every day. This results in plastic ending up in the natural environment, both oceanic and terrestrial.
Cutting back on plastic, on an individual level, has two positive effects.
It reduces the demand for plastic, as well as reducing the overall mass of plastic entering the already struggling waste management system.
By reducing the demand for plastic, the producers of it will have to make changes to survive as a business. Regardless of their motives, the overall effect of plastic producers making more sustainable products will have a positive outcome.
By reducing plastic waste sent for recycling, it could potentially increase recycling rates, resulting in less waste ending up in landfill and the natural environment (only 9% of all plastic ever created has been recycled).
How Does Plastic End Up In The Natural Environment?
There are two main stages to answer this question - the origin of the waste, and the last populated place that the waste was in before it entered the natural environment.
Much of the developed world sends significant percentages of their waste to be processed internationally. Up until recently, this country was China, who had imported around half of the world's waste since the 1992.
This agreement worked for both parties - developed countries could simply ship their waste abroad, never to be seen again. China used their cheap labour force to make huge profits on recycling imported plastic.
In 2018, China created the National Sword Programme. This stated that China would no longer be accepting plastic waste that was less than 99.5% in purity.
This was, and is, a huge problem for countries such as the UK who heavily rely on exporting plastic waste to keep recycling rates high.
Beneath all of the stats on the UK's recycling rates, lies a huge flaw that is at best careless, at worst deliberately deceitful.
100% of waste sent abroad labelled as recycled, is classified as recycled as soon as it leaves the UK.
This means that no matter where in the world the waste actually ends up that should have been sent for recycling, it is classed as 100% recycled.
This is obviously not true.
How is a developing country with huge disparity in waste management quality levels supposed to deliver 100% recycling rates, when only 25% of plastic was recycled in the UK in 2019?
It's a correct assumption to say that much of the plastic waste entering our oceans originates from developed countries, who are exporting their waste to poorer ones. In 2018, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of waste to other countries.
When the waste arrives in these countries, what happens?
Some of it is actually recycled, this much is true.
Half of all oceanic plastic waste enters the ocean from just five countries - China, Vietnam, Thailand, The Philippines and Indonesia.
This is due to the infrastructure not being in place to deal with the waste being imported from other countries, as well as domestic waste.
Since the previously mentioned National Sword initiative, other countries have began to import the waste that would have been sent to China, to disastrous effects.
Subsequently, they have started to send plastic waste back to the countries who sent it.
Malaysia is one of these countries, and one of the hardest hit.
They have now made it illegal to import plastic waste. Unfortunately this has led to the criminalization of the plastic import trade, with ports being raided on a regular basis for suspected plastic smuggling activities.
Environmental Effects Of Plastic
When plastic enters the natural environment, it has negative ramifications on both a macro and micro level.
On a visible level, marine mammals are the most obviously affected creatures.
Plastic debris builds up in the stomach, resulting in sickness, as well as lack of drive to hunt, as the animal believes they are full of nutrition.
Entanglement in fishing nets is becoming a more regular occurrence for whales, turtles and seals all over the world.
On a less visible scale, plastic debris that has broken down into microplastic level accumulates up the marine food chain, via the trophic transfer of microplastics.
This means that large predators are now being studied to have traceable levels of microplastics inside them, including us.
Microplastics reduce the efficiency at which phytoplankton and zooplankton capture and process carbon from the atmosphere.
These organisms are key to the functionality of the oceanic carbon sink - without them, the rate at which the ocean (the world's largest carbon sink) captures atmospheric carbon, and proceeds to store it in the deep ocean, is negatively affected.
When plastic degrades via common mechanisms in the natural environment, greenhouse gases are released.
This process continues all the way down to microplastic level. The rate at which these greenhouse gases, including methane, are released, actually increases as time goes on.
This is due to increased surface area being exposed to degradation, as the plastic pieces break down into smaller chunks.
A Few Common Household Sources Of Plastic
60% of the world's clothing is produced from synthetic materials, including polyester. When polyester clothing is washed, the microplastic fibres are released into the water management streams, potentially ending up in rivers and oceans.
Tea, unless stated otherwise, contains plastic in the tea bag linings. Again, when these are disposed of, they are releasing microplastics.
Shampoos, conditioners and other common toiletries are all packaged in single use plastic. This is the same for many food items found in supermarkets.
Conclusion - Why Is Plastic Free July Important?
In order to reduce the chance of plastic entering the natural environment, two key things must be done.
We must stop making plastic, to start with.
The overall effect of cleaning the ocean, whilst a garbage truck full of plastic is entering the sea every minute, is negligible.
You could also potentially just be cleaning the ocean with plastic, disposing of it, and then the improper processes of waste management leading to the same plastic being put straight back into the ocean again.
This production halt is unlikely to come from inside international governments though, due to the constant lobbying from the fossil fuel industry.
With all this taken into consideration, the only real way to reduce the production volumes of plastic is for consumers to demand change, by purchasing plastic free alternatives.
This is what Plastic Free July does - it brings extra attention to consumer choices, which leads to more people choosing to cut down on plastic. When done in great enough numbers, this will have the effect of reducing plastic being produced.