Explore the role of plastic pollution in the destruction of the environment and discover 20 things you can personally do to reduce plastic waste.
By Rhiannon Wardle
We all know that plastic is a problem. Despite it having many positive qualities – cheap, easy to make, flexible and accessible – it’s becoming increasingly clear that plastic waste is out of control and causing huge damage to the environment. For example, 12 million tonnes of plastic are poured into the ocean every year, and scientists have recently discovered microplastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice. But what’s the solution?
In this article, we’ll discuss what plastic pollution is, what causes it, and why it’s detrimental to the planet and the health of living creatures. Then we’ll give 20 tips on how you can personally reduce the amount of plastic waste you create, from avoiding single-use plastics to putting pressure on manufacturers.
What is plastic pollution?
So what exactly is plastic pollution? Essentially, it’s the accumulation of synthetic plastic products in the environment that reaches an extent where it causes problems for wildlife habitats, ecosystems and human populations.
Initially, plastic use was revolutionary. However, by the end of the 20th century, we were seeing plastic pollution span all kinds of environments, including the bottom of the ocean and high in the mountains. In our open step about alternatives to fossil-fuel-derived plastics, you can find some shocking statistics about plastic pollution.
In 2016, The World Economic Forum found that 78 million tonnes of plastic is produced annually, and only 14% is recycled, and 32% is leaked into the environment. Furthermore, they found that in 2014, the ratio of fish to plastic was 5:1. They predicted that by 2050 this ratio would be 1:1, so there would be as much plastic as fish. So clearly, this is pollution on an enormously detrimental scale.
What are the causes of plastic pollution?
There are plenty of causes of plastic pollution, but we’ve detailed the most prominent causes below. Some of these causes are complicated to tackle, but having knowledge of them can help us make more informed decisions as we consume.
- We create large amounts of waste. A lot of our waste is made of plastic, and we create a lot of litter as a society. If we were less wasteful, we could make a difference in this area.
- Commercial fishing nets. While sometimes necessary, fishing nets can leak toxins, break and pollute oceans, and even stay permanently and trap sea life. Better management and harsher fishing laws are needed.
- Mismanaged plastic disposal. So much plastic doesn’t get recycled when it should – instead, it goes to landfills or ends up scattered around the landscape. It is also often burned, releasing fossil fuels and creating air pollution.
- Decomposition time. It takes over 400 years for plastic to decompose, which is an incredibly long time considering the amount of plastic we need to get rid of.
- Nature spreads pollution. Unfortunately, the wind, rivers, and ocean can all spread pollution naturally due to the commonly lightweight nature of plastic.
- Overuse of plastic. This is the biggest cause – we overproduce plastic to an enormous extent. We can’t possibly manage the amount of waste created.
Why plastic waste is damaging the planet
While this article will focus on what you can do individually to reduce plastic waste, it’s worth mentioning some of the ways that plastic is damaging the planet and those who live on it. For more detailed information, check out our complete guide to climate change here.
- It disrupts the food chain. This happens in many ways, but one notable example is animals eating plastics and this getting passed down the food chain and damaging the health of these animals.
- It can be dangerous for human health. Plastics getting into our food supply can also negatively impact our health, as we’re consuming poisonous substances.
- Groundwater pollution can affect our water supply. Plastics in our water supplies can release a lot of harmful toxins that end up going into our bodies, yet again.
- It’s harmful to animals. Besides being harmful to consume, animals can also be injured or even killed by plastic. Marine animals often get trapped in nets, and land animals suffocate in plastic bags.
- It causes land, air and water pollution. Plastic causes all kinds of pollution – we’ve spoken about land and water pollution, but it also creates air pollution just by being created in the first place.
- Clearing areas of plastic waste is difficult and expensive. The amount of plastic waste in the world is so huge that it’s extremely difficult to get rid of it and requires a lot of money.
How can we reduce our plastic waste?
Now onto the most important part – how can we make a difference? Luckily there are several changes you can implement as an individual that can have a positive impact. However, it is worth mentioning that individual actions are not enough by themselves.
In our interview with Professor Karl Williams at the University of Central Lancashire, he describes how legislation and policy are key to tackling global plastic pollution. This can be anything from laws about littering to waste shipment and waste management legislation.
So keep in mind, throughout these tips, that there are things beyond your control. You can, however, try to sway governments and politicians in your direction by emailing them, signing petitions and protesting. From there, governments can put pressure on manufacturers and corporations to make changes.
Without further ado, here are 20 tips on how you can reduce plastic waste in your daily life:
1. Recycle when possible (and do it properly)
Recycling, whenever you can, has a positive impact on the planet as it prevents too many plastics from ending up in landfills. Of course, recycling systems aren’t perfect, but recycling is still more productive than chucking everything in the same bin.
Different countries have different recycling systems and rules, but here are three rules that generally can be followed no matter where you are:
- Recycle clean bottles, cans, paper and cardboard.
- Don’t put food or liquids in your recycling.
- No loose plastic bags or recycled goods should be placed in plastic bags.
2. Avoid single-use plastics
Single-use plastic items are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to plastic pollution. You might find it harder than you’d think to stay away from them, but noticing how prevalent they are in daily life is a good first step.
Some common examples that contain single-use plastic include plastic-wrapped vegetables in supermarkets, wet wipes, cotton buds, plastic cutlery, coffee cups, straws, sanitary products and cigarettes. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives if you look for them.
3. Use alternative packaging
If you own a small business, it can really make a difference if you look for alternative packaging options. Whether you own a cafe or have a small business on Etsy, you could try more sustainable packaging options, including paper and cardboard. If you work in the food industry, you might be interested in our Introduction to Sustainable Practices in Food Service course by International Culinary Studio.
Sometimes, we do need packaging that at least emulates plastic in order to protect products, particularly when it comes to food. Bioplastics are plastics made from renewable, bio-based materials like cellulose, and they have the potential to biodegrade more quickly than normal plastics.
4. Do a trash audit
A trash audit is basically where you take a look at your rubbish and track what you’re throwing away frequently. Often, we throw things away without a second thought, so this is a great way of understanding exactly how much waste we create. A trash audit also allows us to find substitutes for our most regularly discarded items.
For example, if you find a lot of coffee cups in the trash, you know it’s time to buy a reusable cup. Alternatively, if you have a lot of crisp packets, consider buying a bigger packet next time and finding packaging that’s recyclable. Or, you could look into a scheme like Terracycle that helps you recycle crisp packets.
5. Find reusable options
We touched on this in our previous points about single-use plastics, but finding reusable alternatives is the best way to ensure that you stop using so many single-use plastic items. These don’t have to be fancy bamboo alternatives either – even placing regular metal cutlery in your bag, or taking an old plastic water bottle with you to work will suffice.
There are even alternative options to things like clingfilm – learn to make your own zero-waste bio-based clingfilm in our open step. To learn more about making sustainable choices, join our Exploring Sustainable Living and Loving with Mogli course by Tommy Hilfiger.
6. Grow your own food
As we mentioned earlier, lots of vegetables and fruits are covered in plastics at the supermarket. To avoid this problem entirely whilst also learning to be more self-sufficient, why not try growing your own food? With help from our course How to Grow Healthy Plants by Gardeners World Magazine, you’ll be growing your own herbs and veggies in no time.
7. Buy from local markets and low-waste shops
If you don’t quite have the time and energy to grow your own food, consider buying food from local markets and low-waste shops instead. Depending on the country you live in, buying from markets can be either more or less expensive than supermarkets – so it’s a good idea to do some research beforehand and find the best option for you.
Low-waste shops are notably more expensive, but they can be a great option for dried goods such as pasta, rice, pulses and nuts. You usually bring your own containers with you and fill them as needed – no waste created! You can learn more about tackling food waste in our course, From Waste to Value: How to Tackle Food Waste.
8. Bake your own bread
Similarly to growing your own food, why not try baking your own bread and other baked goods? This is not only a fun and rewarding activity, but it will reduce the amount of plastic-wrapped baked goods and bread that you buy at the shop. To get started, take a look at our Learn How to Bake Sourdough with BBC Good Food course.
9. Make your own cleaning and cosmetic products in jars
It’s so easy to get sucked into the worlds of cleaning and cosmetic products, but did you know that many of them use extremely simple ingredients and can be made at home? This can not only reduce your use of plastic but is also better for the environment as you’ll be using less harmful chemicals.
Alternatively, you might want to buy products in bar form or in metal packaging – but we thought we’d demonstrate just how simple it is to make some products below:
- One part white vinegar
- One part water
- Lemon juice
- Rosemary sprigs
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 4 tbsp cornflour
- 4 tbsp baking soda
- Essential oils of your choice
10. Switch up your laundry routine
There are plenty of ways you can make your laundry routine more eco-friendly and plastic-free. First of all, detergent often comes in plastic bottles or plastic sachets, so try to go for a zero-waste detergent. You could even try a laundry egg – recyclable and durable eggs that contain plastic-free pellets that both clean and soften your clothes. What’s not to like?
Besides detergent, consider making a homemade stain remover and buying a microfibre washing bag to prevent microplastics from shedding off your clothes. Washing clothes on cold will also make them last longer, preventing plastic waste in the form of clothing and reducing your carbon footprint.
11. Say no to extras when ordering a takeaway
This is such a simple fix that you may not think of it initially. When you order a takeaway, ensure that you click to say that you don’t want any added cutlery. You can even write a note asking for as little extra plastic as possible.
In addition to this, it’s worth saving takeaways for special occasions if you can help it. Because they have to be packaged up and sent to you, there is always a lot of packaging involved that wouldn’t be created if you cooked or went out to the restaurant instead.
12. Choose clothes made from sustainable or recycled materials
In our how sustainable is the fashion industry blog, we discuss how fast fashion is one of the biggest polluters in the world. Part of the reason for this is because so many clothes from fast fashion brands are made from plastics: polyester, nylon, acrylic.
So when masses of clothes go to landfills after being worn once or twice, they don’t biodegrade for hundreds of years. Instead, if you want to buy new clothes, continue buying garments made from sustainable or recycled materials. To find out more about your options, you can check out our sustainable fabrics guide.
13. Shop in bulk
Shopping in bulk is where you do one very big shop and pick up all the essentials you need, rather than buying smaller amounts of ingredients on a regular basis. Not only can you save money by choosing to shop this way, but you also use a lot less packaging and single-use plastics.
14. Stop buying water
It’s so easy to buy a bottle of water when you feel thirsty – and we know that your health and staying hydrated are very important. However, in the UK, we throw away 7.7 billion plastic water bottles a year, despite having great quality drinking water.
You can beat the urge to buy a plastic water bottle by remembering to take a refillable water bottle with you everywhere. Even if you forget to fill it up before you leave, most cafes will be happy to fill it up for you. This is an area where you can really make a difference with minimal effort.
15. Buy second-hand items
Sometimes, you need to buy plastic items. So many things are made from plastic that it’s difficult to avoid. If you do need to, perhaps consider buying items second-hand. Whether you take a look in charity shops or on eBay, there are often so many pre-loved items available for you to rehome.
16. Upcycle old plastic things
Have you ever heard of upcycling? If not, take note. Upcycling is when you revamp old items to make them more appealing or useful. This can be a great way to breathe new life into old plastic items or clothing garments so that they’re not wasted, and you don’t buy new things.
You can discover the full benefits of upcycling in our open step, but they include saving materials from landfills, celebrating artisanal work, and creating one-of-a-kind items.
17. Avoid microplastics
Microplastics is a term we use to describe pieces of plastic debris that are less than 5mm in length. They are a big problem, especially in our oceans, as fish will often unknowingly consume microplastics.
You can learn more about microplastics and microbeads in our open steps, but essentially you should try to avoid them. In the UK, microbeads are actually banned, but this is not the case everywhere. They can be found in many health, beauty and cleaning products. Microfibres come from clothing and other soft furnishings, so this is another reason why it’s useful to buy plastic-free fabrics.
18. Put pressure on manufacturers
We discussed earlier how it’s vitally important for governments and manufacturers to make a difference when it comes to plastic use and plastic waste. However, the way you choose to spend your money can put pressure on manufacturers.
Choosing to buy from a company is like a vote of confidence – if manufacturers see that fewer people are buying from them because of their attitudes to plastics, they are likely to make positive changes.
19. Hold a town or beach clean
If you’re looking for more practical ways to prevent the spread of plastic pollution, look no further than a local clean. This is particularly easy to get involved in if you live by the sea, as there are often organised beach cleans taking place. You can learn more about this in our How to stop waste reaching the oceans open step.
However, you don’t have to wait for an organised event. Take a binbag with you to your town centre, beach, park or local beauty spot, and remove all the litter. You may even find something valuable if you’re lucky.
20. Speak up at work or university
For our final tip, we encourage you to inspire those around you. The easiest way to make a difference as individuals and communities is to encourage our friends, families, peers and coworkers to adjust their lifestyles. This doesn’t have to be in a preachy way – you just need to discuss the facts, give useful information, and offer practical and simple solutions for reducing plastic waste.