Why is plastic problematic?

Plastic as we know it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years, but in that time it has transformed everything from clothing, cooking and catering, to product design, engineering and retailing. One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is that they're designed to last - for a very long time. And nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today. Some types of plastic can even take over 600 years to breakdown in the environment.

How much plastic is there?


79% of all the plastic created ends up in landfills or the natural environment. This vast amount of waste has been driven by modern life, where plastic is used for many throwaway or "single use" items, from drinks bottles, straws and cutlery to plastic bags. Unfortunately, due to the chemical structure of plastic, it has a long term and negative impact that we are only just beginning to realise.

Beyond scenes of rubbish, the waste that ends up on land destroys soil quality meaning that crops can’t be grown there after a period of time. This is because as plastic degrades it slowly emits toxic chemicals that poison the land. Within a few decades fertile lands become dry and dusty. The few crops that can be grown are tainted with heavy metals and even micro plastic particles. These are in-turn consumed by humans leading to higher rates of cancer and disease. The lack of plant life also results in poor water retention and massive dust storms the types of which we read about in the news more recently. The impact on human life can be dramatic.

In the oceans a similar problem takes place. For sea birds and larger marine creatures like turtles, dolphins and seals, the danger comes from being entangled in plastic bags and other debris, or mistaking plastic for food. Larger pieces of plastic can also damage the digestive systems of sea birds and whales, and can be potentially fatal. Over time, plastic waste slowly degrades and breaks down into tiny micro-fragments which are also causing scientists concern. In 2016 the European Food Safety Authority warned of an increased risk to human health and food safety "given the potential for micro-plastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish". Those microplastics, just like the plastics on land, are a driver for human disease and cancer.

How does this happen?

In recent years it has been recognised that even newborn babies are being born with plastic in their bodies. This is a slow moving but global catastrophe in the process and we all have a part to play in solving it.. What can you do? Firstly, use less plastic where you can. Re-use your plastic bags, don’t use straws, or make many other day to day decisions that create less waste. Secondly, when the opportunity arises, try to use natural products like biodegradables, paper bags, or glass.