As more reports emerge about the damaging effects of plastic pollution, the global reaction – termed the ‘war on plastic’ by the media – has begun to intensify.
Plastic pollution has been a growing problem since the material was first developed in 1907. The creation of such a versatile and adaptable product meant it quickly became a highly popular packaging solution. Inexpensive and durable, plastic started being produced on a mass, worldwide scale in the 1950s, with approximately nine billion metric tons produced over the past 60 years.
However, the chemicals that make plastic so versatile are the same chemicals which can cause significant damage to humans, animals, and the planet we inhabit.
Over the past few months, the media has uncovered some shocking images of the extent of plastic pollution. These have included sizeable chunks of polystyrene found on the Arctic ice caps and, last week, some photos of a literal sea of plastic just off the Caribbean coast.
As well as gaining media condemnation, plastic pollution has been receiving attention from several notable public figures. At the Our Ocean conference in Malta, Prince Charles commented on the devastating effects that plastic is having in the natural world, saying action should have been taken a long time ago. David Attenborough is also using his new series of Blue Planet to highlight the issue further. The programme has explored how plastic has reached waters thousands of miles from land, and the ways in which plastic is harming our ocean and the ecosystems living within it.
Another name to join in the war on plastic is Andy Clarke, ex-CEO of supermarket giant, Asda. Clarke has stated that the only way to tackle the issue is to introduce ‘plastic-free aisles’ in our supermarkets, and instead use more sustainable packaging such as glass, paper and aluminium.
But why is plastic such a big concern for our environment?
Plastic is made from chains of chemical polymers which, even once broken down, remain as micro-plastic particles that contaminate the sea, the air, our drinking water and our food. It has been said that no piece of plastic produced over the past 110 years is entirely ‘gone’ from Earth – it can take 500 to 1000 years for plastic to decompose, and even then it leaves chemical traces which can be harmful to our bodies and the environment.
Another issue with plastic as a packaging solution is that it can only be recycled approximately two to three times before it becomes completely unusable. Compared to glass, which has an infinitely recyclable lifespan, and other materials such as aluminium, plastic will inevitably need to be disposed of in a non-sustainable way. More shockingly still, research has suggested that only 10 per cent of plastic produced is recycled across the world, leaving billions of tons to landfill.
Fortunately, people have been waking up to the irreversible effects of plastic pollution. Last year, the UK introduced the 5p carrier bag charge, aiming to minimise use and disposal of plastic bags. Since then, some mainstream companies have taken major, progressive steps towards change. Pret à Manger recently announced that in some stores it will be ditching plastic bottles in favour of refillable glass ones. Wetherspoon’s is in the process of banning plastic straws, becoming the latest name to join the Refuse the Straw campaign.
While these changes are certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a lot of work to be done. The glass industry has a growing responsibility to promote the use of more sustainable packaging, helping to positively influence consumer behaviour away from the dangers of plastic.