15 January 2014

Time to Get Tough on Plastic

Written by Published in Sustainability Science
Plastic Waste Plastic Waste ©UNDP Europe & Central Asia

Despite tradition, January is a difficult time to turn over a new leaf. However, a glance at our post-festive rubbish combined with insights from new scientific research on plastic waste could provide pointers as to where to make some changes

Plastic has become an essential but disposable part of our lives particularly over the festive season. Whatever your choice of fayre or gift it’s difficult to avoid and, although recycling may alleviate some of our guilt, the amount of plastic in the environment is a major cause for concern. So much so that scientists are calling for it to be classified as hazardous waste.  

Many of us are aware of the more obvious impacts of plastic waste. Images of the giant plastic soup in the Pacific Ocean alongside distressing photos of entangled animals provide clear messages about the problems of plastic waste in the environment. However research has indicated that it may be the more subtle and hidden effects of plastic that are a greater and more widespread concern.

Plastic waste on a beach in Thessalia Greece.Plastic waste on a beach in Thessalia Greece. Image © karina1101-flickrThe buoyancy and durability of plastic make it a well-known floating evil on our waters but a recent study of the upper river Thames in London revealed that this could be much more than a ‘surface problem’. Using nets anchored to the riverbed researchers collected more than 8,000 pieces of submerged plastic over three months. It came in all shapes and forms but the usual suspects were cigarette packaging, food wrappers and cups, and sanitary products. Although local authorities attempt to collect the surface plastic, this ‘hidden litter’ is going unnoticed and could potentially harm wildlife in the river and the North Sea. To make matters worse the tidal motion in the river moves the submerged plastic up and down the bed, breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces that are edible by the tiniest of animals.

These minute plastic pieces are becoming more and more widespread and recent research indicates that, although small in size, their negative effects could be large. So-called microplastics are plastic pieces usually less than five millimetres in diameter that are produced by the grinding-down of larger pieces but also come from many cosmetic products, particularly microbeads in exfoliants. They can harbour a double whammy of unpleasant chemicals; not only from additives in the plastic itself such as Bisphenol A but also by absorbing chemicals such as pesticides that are present in the water. Due to their tiny size, the chemicals concentrate on their surface, making them an unhealthy meal for even the most marine robust diner. And food for thought for those further up the food chain.

There are many marine creatures that can consume microplastics but one of the most prone is the lugworm, otherwise known as the earthworm of the sea. Like its land-living relative, the lowly lugworm is highly valuable to biodiversity and has a penchant for sand and sediments, which often contain microplastics. Recent research has shown that the chemicals associated with microplastics transfer from the lugworm’s stomach into its tissues and accumulate. This has negative impacts on the health of the lugworm itself and potentially on animals further up the foodchain, including humans. Scientists are calling for greater awareness of this and, early last year, some suggested that plastics, such as PVC, should be reclassified as hazardous waste. 

Plastic waste process WRAP sPlastic waste process. Image © WRAPReclassification would provide more klout for environmental agencies to prevent accumulation of plastic debris and greater incentive for industry to find alternatives but, even if policy makers do sign up, it may take some time for it to become legal reality. In the better facilities to recycle plastic are helping the situation but considering that we produce about 280 million tonnes of plastic globally and that in the European Union alone (which has a relatively good record) the recycling rate is 26%, there is a need to go to the heart of the matter and start reducing our plastic use.

Plastic bags have been an obvious (and easy) target for reduction and the subject of policy debate in several countries. However plastic is used in other aspects of our lives, many of which we are not even aware. Last year there were several reports of people giving up plastic, coining the term plasticarian and there has even been a book written on ‘Kicking the plastic habit’. These first-hand stories have illustrated the complexity of quitting this ubiquitous material, which exists in so many areas of our lives from computer keyboards to aspirin blister packs to polyester fibres in our clothes. Plastic is literally everywhere and to give it up requires a complete lifestyle change.

So rather than complete abstention from plastic perhaps we need to start with a plastic inventory. Instead of turning over a brand new leaf, maybe we can take a leaf out of the scientists’ book to survey just where and how we use plastic in our everyday lives. And if we can identify some of our  hidden uses of plastic then perhaps we can address some of the hidden but concerning impacts of plastic that science is revealing. 


David Morritt, D., Paris V. Stefanoudis, P.V., Pearce, D., Crimmen, O. A. & Clark, P.F., 2014 Plastic in the Thames: A river runs through it. Marine Pollution Bulletin  78(1-2): 196-200 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13006565

Browne, M.A., Niven, S.J., Galloway, T. S., Rowland, S.J. & Thompson, R.C., 2013. Microplastic moves pollutants and additives worms, reducing health and biodiversity. Current Biology 23(23); 2388 – 2392 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982213012530

Rochman, C.M., Browne, M.A., Halpern, B.S.,Hentschel, B.T. Hoh, E., Karapanagioti, H.K., Rios-Mendoza,L.M., Takada, H. Swee Teh &. Thompson, R.C., 2013. Policy: Classify plastic waste as hazardous. Nature 494:169-171 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v494/n7436/full/494169a.html

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