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Plastic Pollution

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Plastic pollution has become one of the world’s most urgent environmental problems.

Author / translator Richard Dawson

Plastic pollution has become one of the world’s most urgent environmental problems. The rapidly growing demand and production of plastic products has to contend with our inability to both understand how to fully utilise them during their whole life cycle and how to deal with plastic waste at the end of its productive life.

Plastic waste is now found in seas, oceans, soil and even in our most remote and wild places such as forests and glaciers. Plastic pollution is a threat to all ecosystems, and particularly for the survival of marine biodiversity. Turtles, seabirds and whales die because they exchange plastic for food. However, the conundrum is that it can be a brilliant resource both strong light and flexible. How can we best ensure that it is used wisely and that we look at its whole life cycle? For these reasons many UK schools are considering becoming ‘plastic free’ . This game can be used to guide students through the complex science issues and social choices.

Created 23 June 2020
Last edited 9 July 2020
Topics Climate, Science, Sustainability

Policy positions

Policy position 1

Policy actions -taking individual action

Environmental charities have lots of guidance to guide individual activities

Friends of the earth how to reduce plastic use in:
• Bathrooms
• Kitchens
• Gardens

Surfers against Sewage
• How to organise a beach clean -

Marine conservation society
• a personal plastic challenge -

Policy position 2

Policy action ideas – Develop school systems

Schools systems are complicated and tied into wider local and national systems. Here are links to some great policy ideas.

• Surfers against Sewage ‘Plastic free schools’ -
• Marine conservation society -
• Practical Action links school policy to global issues -

Policy position 3

Policy actions ideas - Develop national and international systems

The Rethink Plastic alliance is a great place to start.
• works with European decision-makers to design and deliver policies solutions for a future free from plastic pollution.
• ….urgent action in 3 key areas: reduction, redesign and better management of plastics.

Policy position 4

Policy action ideas – systems background (1)

Close the tap of plastic pollution by cutting the use of single-use items, overpackaging and top littered products, while eliminating microplastics and oxoplastics.

Preventing plastic waste must be a priority, followed by reuse and recycling, with landfill or incineration as a last resort. With the right economic incentives and a strong legislative framework, we can reduce our plastic footprint.

Policy position 5

Policy action ideas –systems background (2)

Improve plastic waste managment to end landfill, incineration and leakages of plastics into the environment.
Ensure a responsible, local management of plastic waste, by empowering producers, retailers and municipalities to achieve maximum collection and safe recycling.

The key? Improved collection, better monitoring, and economic incentives to support safe recycling and discourage virgin plastic

Policy position 6

Policy action ideas – systems background (3)

Redesign plastic products to make the circular economy come true. Make plastics responsible by design: long-lasting, reusable, recyclable, toxic-free, and incorporating recycled content.

It’s about producers taking responsibility for the products they put on the market, eco-design being extended to all plastic products, chemical ingredients being traced, and harmful chemicals being phased out.

Story cards


I run a mail order business. We are really busy taking online orders and sending them out to customers. They really like our plastic moulds of famous people...can you guess who is most popular at the moment. Plastic is really great because we can make our product cheaply and easily...and they last a really long time.

Some people say we should use less packaging. Maybe they are right, but we need to ship our products. If we do not use bubble wrap, our products might get damaged and then it costs us money. I know there are alternatives but they cost more and customers never like to pay more in my opinion. What can I do about it?


When I have free time I like to go down to the beach. It is so peaceful and calming to watch the sea coming onto the beach everyday...I wish my school lessons took place on the beach, even in the winter.

Over the last few years I have seen more plastic waste appearing on the beach. I did some reseach, and apparently some ships just throw their rubbish disgusting. They carry it all onto their boat, so why can't they carry it off again when they are done. It's so unfair that my beach is being spoiled by such selfish behaviour. I've joined a local NGO to clean the beach and educate people about plastic waste.


I work as a research scientist...and yes I do wear a white lab coat. Most of my time is spent reseaching carbon molecules which are really amazing. They are the building blocks of all life and are found everywhere.

A few years ago I attended a conference where an ecologist talked about their being no waste in nature, and that in nature all the carbon molecules are constantly recycled into new plants and animals, all powered by the sun...amazing. I started to think why can't we design things in the same way and as it turns out, some scientists are already working on this. So, I now research how we can develop plastics which can be constantly remade into new things without waste and pollution. Maybe in the future plastic will be seen as a good thing not bad?


I get elected to the town council 2 years ago. There are lots of local issues I am pasionnate about including making our streets safer and cleaner for everyone. I thought that as soon as I get elected, I will be able to sart making a real difference. Turns out to be much harder than I thought. Everyone seems to disagree when we meet and it is really hard to work together. Of course everyone wants safer and cleaner streets, but will they agree how?

I made a proposal for a community clean-up team in each neighbourhood. I did some research and talked with local residents. I thought is was a great idea until at our council meeting some people objected, saying it will take jobs away from the waste disposal firm contracted to collect the bins. Why does it have to be so competitive all the time? Can't we work together for everyones benefit?



What is the problem with plastics? - Recycling issues (1)

… the problem with plastic is that most of it isn't biodegradable.
• It doesn't rot, like paper or food, so instead it can hang around in the environment for hundreds of years.
• Each year, 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced and 40% of that is single-use - plastic we'll only use once before it's binned.
• Examples of single-use plastic are carrier bags, drinks bottles and crisp packets.

What is the problem with plastics? - Recycling issues (2)

……not all plastic can be recycled.
• This might be because of the way it is made up or because it is too expensive or difficult to do.
• Some coffee cups, for example, have a waterproof plastic lining which can make them difficult to recycle.
• Every day seven million cardboard coffee cups are thrown away but only one in 400 are recycled.

What is the problem with plastics? – Climate change

Plastic is a big problem for the environment even before it pollutes rivers and oceans. Plastic is a major contributor to climate change.

That's because chemicals derived from fossil fuel production are used to make almost all plastics - more than 99% of them.

So the more plastic we make, the more of these petrochemicals we need. And the more petrochemicals we need, the higher the demand for gas, oil and even coal...driving climate change.

What is the problem with plastics? Ocean pollution (1)

• More than eight million tonnes of plastic enters the world's oceans each year and most of that escapes from land.
• It can be blown into the sea from ships and beaches, or carried there by river. Some also gets flushed down the toilet.
• Experts think that by 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean will weigh more than the amount of fish in the ocean.

What is the problem with plastics? Ocean pollution (2)

• All animals, whether they live on land or in the sea, can be hurt by plastic.
• They can get trapped in bigger items such as carrier bags or food packaging.
• Birds, fish and shellfish can mistake plastic for food when it has broken down in to smaller pieces.
• One in three sea turtles, and around 90% of seabirds, have eaten it.
• They can't digest plastic so their stomachs can become full, meaning they don't have room for actual food.

What is the problem with plastics? Ocean pollution (3)

They're created by currents in the ocean which carry the waste and bring it together.
One of the most famous is the 'Pacific Garbage Patch' between California and Hawaii.
These are known as 'trash islands' or 'garbage patches'.

What is the problem with plastics? Micro plastics (1)

Microplastic pollutants are bits of plastic less than 5mm in size.
Typically, microplastics are thought to come from a number of sources, such as:
• car tyres
• paints on buildings
• plastic pellets used to make plastic products
• clothing
The risks to human and environmental health are unknown and urgently need investigating. But we do know these microplastics are escaping into the sea and potentially entering the food chain.

What is the problem with plastics? Micro plastics (2)

• Vehicle tyres are made of a mixture of synthetic materials, including different types of plastic, that shed during driving.
• They are responsible for the greatest proportion of microplastic pollution entering EU surface waters, according to a report by Eunomia for Friends of the Earth .
• Every time we wash our clothes, microplastics drain out with the water and slip through the sewage system into our waterways.

The History of Plastics (1)

The first synthetic plastic - plastic made entirely from man-made materials - was created over 100 years ago.
It was called Bakelite and was invented by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland in the early 1900s.
Many think Bakelite was the start of plastics as we know them today.

What are the most common types of plastics in use ?

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) - used in water bottles and plastic trays

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) - used for milk cartons and shampoo bottles

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) - plastic carrier bags and bin liners.

Polypropylene (PP) - margarine tubs and ready-meal trays

Recycling common plastics (1)

The 4 main plastic types have the greatest recycling demand and are easier for recycling facilities to handle than other polymers.

As it’s airtight and rigid, yet flexible, PET is the most commonly used, and particularly useful for packaging food and drinks.

Polystyrene (takeaway boxes, cups and food packaging) and PVC (food packaging and drainpipes and guttering), are technically recyclable, it's much more difficult to recycle these.

Recycling common plastics (2)

Bags that are crinkly and airtight (salad bags or crisp packets) are made of composite plastics that are almost impossible to recycle.

To stop gases escaping from them, these plastics have been developed with multiple polymers layered on top of each other.

It makes them completely airtight – ideal for storing foods that would otherwise soon go stale or wilt.

But the layers make them very hard to recycle.

The scale of plastic waste in the UK (2016) – all sectors (1)

• In that year an estimated 1.53 million tonnes of plastic waste were reported.
This was up by 24% since 2010 and 13% since 2014.

The service sector was the largest single contributor with 53%.

Households contributed just over 8%. These data are based on waste streams that are categorised as ‘plastics wastes’(only) and exclude the plastic content of other mixed waste streams such as the general ‘Households and similar wastes’ stream.

The scale of plastic waste in the UK (2016) – all sectors (2)

The coverage of UK data on plastic waste has been questioned by some organisations.

A report for WWF calculated that total plastic waste generation in the UK in 2014 was around 4.9 million tonnes

This could increase to around 6.3 million tonnes by 2030

Plastic packaging made up two-thirds of plastic waste in 2014 (3.3 million tonnes).

What happens to UK plastic waste? (1)

In 2016
• 91% of plastic waste ,which was sent to treatment went to ‘recycling and other recovery’
• 9% to landfill.
• The amount of plastic waste going to landfill fell from 122,400 tonnes in 2012 to 53,400 tonnes in 2016.

UK House of Commons briefing – ‘Plastic Waste’

What happens to UK plastic waste? (2)

The coverage of this data has been questioned.

A WWF-UK report calculated recycling rates for single use plastics, based on the amount of waste produced, not just the share going to treatment of any kind (landfill, recycling, incineration etc.). They estimated recycling rates of 29% for 2018 and projected a rate of 37% for 2030 based on estimates of all plastic waste. Estimated landfill rates in 2018 were 48% with 22% going to energy recovery

Plastic packaging waste - UK

The recycling/ recovery rate has increased in each year and are now more than double the minimum target of 22.5%.6. The data on the amount of packaging waste produced are industry estimates.

UK House of Commons briefing – ‘Plastic Waste’

Alternative estimates of plastic waste recycling

Eunomia (for WWF) estimates:
• The actual volume produced was around 3.5 million tonnes in 2015.
• This is more than 50% above the figure used in Government statistics for 2015- 2017.
• Around 2/3 of this waste is collected by local authorities, mainly from households.
• Their calculation includes an estimate of plastics in general household waste.
• With this estimate of waste produced the resulting recycling rate falls 23-29% in 2015.

Exports of plastic waste

• In 2019 the UK exported 0.5 million tonnes of plastic waste.
• The amount exported increased rapidly in the decade to its 2011 peak of almost 0.9 million tonnes.
• The chart shows that it has generally fallen since then.
• The 2019 level was the lowest for over a decade.

Exports of plastic waste

Much of the expansion of waste exports went to China/Hong Kong and these exports accounted for more than 80% of the total in 2005 to 2012.

They fell in importance after 2013 but were still the largest single destination in 2017 with 37% of the total.

The decision by China to ban imports of certain types of waste for recycling from 2018 saw UK exports to China fall by 97% between 2016 and 2019.

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