If you care about climate breakdown, you should care about plastics.

More than once I’ve heard people say that climate breakdown is a much bigger issue than plastic pollution, or that plastic pollution is a distraction from the wider environmental crisis we face. Add to this a recent BBC interview with George Monbiot in which he slammed switching your cotton buds as ‘pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks’, and I’ve got myself a case for defending plastic pollution’s place at the table of environmental collapse. Sounds like a dinner party to die for. 

In his defence, George was referring to the problem of trying to solve rampant consumerism with more consumerism. And we did have a particularly fun moment when I challenged him on it on stage recently at an event. As the founder of City to Sea, the organisation behind the #SwitchtheStick campaign (which successfully got all UK supermarkets to stop making cotton buds out of plastic and switch to paper instead) I felt the need to call him out on that one.  

And it’s a case in point, stopping over 400 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic, which would have most likely ended up being flushed and making its way into the UK’s rivers and seas, isn’t micro-consumerist bollocks. It’s a big reduction in fossil-fuel based plastic that sent a strong message to not just the supermarkets, but the plastic industry itself, that us ‘consumers’ don’t want 275,000 tonnes of currently non-recyclable plastic a year covering our cosmetic products, food, or anything else. And beyond that, it challenged investor’s assumptions that the plastic industry is a good bet. Pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks? More like awesome macro-systemic transformation. (I thought I made that word up, but apparently, it already exists.)  

Challenging industry assumptions of the infinite growth of demand for plastic – a plastics boom even – is exactly what we’re doing every time we as individuals refuse single-use plastic. And challenge them we must, as over 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels, and most of us are now well aware that we need to keep that stuff firmly in the ground if we’re to have any chance of avoiding the worst consequences from climate breakdown.  

According to one study, this means leaving at least 80 percent of the world’s known remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground, which includes more than 90 percent of U.S. coal reserves and all 100% of Arctic oil and gas. We cannot meet these goals without kicking our global plastics habit. And here’s why.  

Currently, plastic manufacturing is estimated to use 8 percent of yearly global oil production. It doesn’t sound like much does it? Yet the plastic produced from this, or our lack of effective waste management systems, has been enough to wreak utter destruction on marine ecosystems, killing hundreds of thousands of marine mammals, entangling countless others and poisoning our food chain. There are unseen consequences too; degrading plastics on beaches are releasing methane (a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2) and a new study shows that microplastics in the ocean could be disrupting natural carbon storage 

Despite this catastrophe, plastic’s share of global oil use is set to triple by 2050, increasing greenhouse gas emissions from petrochemicals by 30 percent and doubling plastic pollution in our oceans. 

via GIPHY

If the plastic industry has its way, rising plastic production will account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That’s about the same as the entire current emissions of the transportation industry – planes, trains, cars, buses and all.  

And the industry push is powerful – currently, over $200 billion is being invested in factories, pipelines, and other infrastructure in the U.S. that will rely on shale gas (from fracking) to supply feedstock to the plastic industry. The need for us to push back is real, and it’s urgent.  

Yet for such a big and ruthless force, they have a major weak spot; they need us more than we need them. They need us to keep buying plastic, they need our governments to keep subsidising them, and they need investors to keep investing in them.  

You can stop buying single-use plastic. You can join a movement like School Strike for Climate or Extinction Rebellion and get your government to subsidise mass ecological restoration and renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. And you can make sure your current account provider, investments or pension funds are not funding the plastic industry.  

climate protestor holding sign Image by Jonathan Kemper

Plastic bag bans all around the world, the new EU single-use plastics directive, bans on straws, polystyrene and yes, even the plastic cotton bud, are a red flag to investors that the plastic industry is at risk – that maybe the boom they were hoping to make a buck out of is as dead in the water as the marine life they might one day have gone snorkelling with, had they not ruined it.   

So keep on signing petitions, sharing your zero-waste, plastic-free photos on Instagram, keep on creating a trend for a reusable, buy-less lifestyle and keep on refilling those water bottles. You’re creating a new story, and the more people that buy into it the less attractive the old one becomes … and, a bit like smoking, we quickly realise it really wasn’t that attractive anyway. “Remember the days we used to walk around carrying planet-polluting bottles and sipping coffee out of plastic-lined cups with virgin plastic lids? What were we thinking?”  

It’s time to broaden our perspective on plastic pollution and shift the focus away from its effects towards its cause. Yes, we still need to share photos of majestic, endangered species dying from ingesting plastic, and we also need to be talking about consumerism, capitalism and climate breakdown. Plastic pollution is a symptom not just of a broken waste system, but of a broken society, and it’s in all of our interests to fix it as soon as is humanly possible. 

Natalie Fee is the founder of City to Sea 

Feature Image provided by Bob Blob

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Bioplastics: A load of rubbish?

From balloons to disposable cups and cutlery to take away boxes, bioplastics are appearing as the supposed environmentally-friendly solution to plastic.

They allow you to enjoy the benefits of a disposable lifestyle but without the environmental price-tag. But is it that simple? Here at City to Sea we’ve taken a look at the issue and sorted the facts from the rubbish.

But first of all, what actually are bioplastics? To be called a bioplastic, a product has to be either biodegradable or made from plant-based materials. But being made from a plant doesn’t mean a product will degrade like a plant, and being biodegradable doesn’t mean a product will break down with food waste in the kitchen. In reality, most bioplastics need to be composted at very high temperatures over a period of several weeks in an industrial composter, and not at home in our garden compost as many of us think.

There are a couple of main types of bioplastics that you may have heard of, oxo-degradable and compostable. Oxo-degradable plastics are actually petroleum-based plastics that break down into lots of little pieces, yes that’s right- they turn into micro-plastics deliberately. Thankfully the EU Environment Committee is demanding these are banned by 2020. The second type of bioplastics are called ‘compostable plastics’. These aren’t made from oil, so that is a positive. However, despite the ‘compostable’ labelling they can’t be composted in your back garden but need to be industrially composted at high heat. Which means if your compostable balloon or straw ends up as rubbish in our oceans, rivers or natural environment, it won’t breakdown and will pose the same risks to wildlife as normal plastics.

Finally, there are home compostable bioplastics like cellophane. These can go in your home composter and will take 28-60 days to break down. However, if they go in your food caddy, which is then picked up by your local council, they will be removed as part of the depackaging process which prevents contamination from plastics as they don’t break down quick enough.

But if we process them responsibly are bioplastics OK?


The second big issue is that we don’t currently have significant infrastructure to compost bioplastics in the UK. The industrial composters that can break down compostable plastics are called in-vessel composters and there are currently only around 18 in the UK. These sites only accept waste that’s guaranteed not to be contaminated by oil-based plastics, which means the shipments need to come from closed environments (like festivals) which can guarantee the plastics have been kept separate.  Some café’s are offering take-back schemes to enable this too.

This leaves us consumers in a plastics pickle. Compostable bioplastics look exactly the same as oil-based plastics, so they often end up in the food bin or the recycling bin when actually, the only household bin they can go in is the general waste bin. Yes, that’s right, we’re expected to understand that ‘compostable’ doesn’t mean we can actually compost them. As clear as mud.

 

So, should we say bye-bye to bioplastics?

What all this means, is that while bioplastics might sound good, they are still a single-use material and there are extremely limited options to compost them. Ultimately, due the nature of when we tend to use bioplastics – as takeaway food containers and packaging – they end up in the bin and consequently in landfill.   The other issue is that as they don’t biodegrade outside of certain conditions they can still contribute to marine pollution if they become litter.

If compostable plastics are to become a viable alternative to oil-based plastics, there is a lot of work for the bioplastics and waste industries to do so they can better work together.

There are some positive innovations that should be celebrated and are fit for purpose– for example– in Indonesia they have developed a product using seaweed that dissolves harmlessly in water, which solves some of their issues with small sachets.

Our advice at City to Sea remains that refusing plastic and any single-use is the only solution. So choosing to refill and reuse are the best options. If your local cafe is using bio-plastic packaging, then treat it as you would traditional plastic and take your own reusable alternatives.

Check out our list of bioplastics FAQs to find out everything you need to know.

Livvy Drake is a Sustainability and Behaviour Change consultant. In her spare time, she can be found on her bike escaping to nature

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Recycling

WHY RECYCLING WON’T SOLVE OUR PLASTIC PROBLEM

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that we can not recycle ourselves out of our current plastic problem. In fact, the current recycling system for plastics is one of the big contributors to plastic pollution around the world.  

Of the more than six billion tonnes of plastic waste produced by 2015, only 9 per cent has ever been recycled. Of the rest, almost all of it is now in the landfill or the natural environment (79 per cent) with the remainder incinerated.  

The UK’s official plastic packaging recycling rate is just 39 per cent – although research organisation Eunomia believe this to be much lower than reported.  That means more than 60% of all the plastic we use is ending up in landfill, incinerated – or worse, in our environment and oceans.  With the tragic news of yet another whale found dead with a belly full of plastic, it’s clear we have a very serious problem we’re not going to recycle our way out of.

City to Sea are committed to preventing plastic pollution at source – reducing the need for recycling in the first place by advocating reuse and providing practical solutions to the single-use water bottles such as our Refill campaign.

Why recycling plastic is hard 

For some products, recycling is an effective solution. Aluminium cans and glass, for example, are infinitely recyclable and can be reprocessed in the UK.  But for plastics, it’s a different story 

For one thing, there are so many types of plastic it makes it hard to sort correctly. Consumers inadvertently mix recyclable and non-recyclable plastics in the same box, which contaminates the load and requires there to be further sorting and segregating, which not all collectors do, and effects the value and re-usability of the plastic when it’s resold.  

Most people believe that putting out the plastic each week is helping the environment; although many are unaware the complexity of the processing required and the diligence of contractors required to make sure materials do actually get reprocessed effectively.  

Most people are trying their best to recycle plastic – but the many different ways in which recycling is collected by councils across the UK has left them confused over what can be recycled and what can’t. Read our essential guide to recycling for more information on recycling logos and what they mean.

What happens to our plastic waste? 

We only reprocess 1/3rd of our plastic recycling in the UK, so once plastic waste enters the system, it is sorted and then put up for sale on the international commodities market to be shipped around the world. Depending on the quality of the load―e.g. how many types of plastic it includes, how dirty they are―and the reputation of the waste handler, there are a number of different things that can then happen.  

If the quality is good enough, the plastics are re-purposed. This means downcycling them into plastic furniture, drain pipes or fleece clothing, which then can’t be recycled afterwards.  

If the quality is poor, the plastics that can be used are extracted and the rest end up being burned or dumped.  

And, if they’re bought by unscrupulous reprocesses in countries where environmental laws are lax, this dumped and incinerated waste can end up in the local environment, contaminating rivers and making its way to the sea.  

Historically, China is where most of the world’s plastic has ended up. It’s no coincidence that more than half of all the plastic pollution carried from the rivers to the ocean comes from the Yangtze. But at the end of 2017 China closed its doors to the most contaminated loads, putting the burden back on the rest of the world. 

What the future holds for recycling and plastic 

Whilst governments and environmental agencies investigate the issues of the plastics recycling industry around the world. The obvious solution to our plastic problem is to produce and use less of it.  

Several EU and UK laws will come into force in the next few years requiring manufacturers to take more responsibility for their materials. And the UK Government’s Waste and Resources Strategy proposes taxing companies that don’t have a minimum of 30 per cent recycled content in their plastics.  

Voluntary initiatives like the UK Plastics Pact and The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment also keep the pressure on to create a more ‘circular economy’. 

At City to Sea we appreciate that some of the issues surrounding recycling are being addressed by the New Plastics Economy Commitment, Plastics Pact and the Waste and Resources Strategy however, we feel there should be a greater focus on the reusability of materials. Whilst recycling is obviously a fantastic solution for dealing with some of the plastics we need, we need to reduce the sheer volume of single-use plastics and shift away from our throwaway culture to value the products we have and start refilling and reusing over recycling.

What you can do  

    • Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Refill and only then opt for Recycling. Check out our top 12 ways to reduce single-use plastic here.
    • Where reusables aren’t an option, choose materials that have a clear waste stream such as recycled card, paper, aluminium and glass.
    • Tell the Government that you want to see meaningful change with their consultations on waste and plastics. See our comments on the plastic bottle Deposit Return Scheme consultation. 
    • Seek out plastic-free packaging suppliers or those using recycled content e.g. Iceland and Lush. 
    • Where plastics are unavoidable ask producers to increase the recycled content to create a proper market for recycled plastics.
    • Join campaigns such as Plastic Attack to highlight pointless packaging in supermarkets.   

Image of recycling bins

Paweł Czerwiński

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