Plastic Waste

The use of plastic products over the last 70 years is exceptional. We now produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use, after which it is is thrown away. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. Plastic is a valuable resource and plastic pollution is an unnecessary and unsustainable waste of that resource.

Sources of plastic pollution

Plastic pollution is known to come from three main sources:

  1. Our rubbish - When plastic waste is collected and transported to landfill sites, it is at risk of escaping into the environment. Even when it moves to landfills, plastic risks being blown away and ending up in rivers or oceans.

    Plastic litter is also a major issue i.e. plastic that either isn’t collected where waste management facilities are lacking, or plastic that is simply dropped or disposed of on streets or in the environment. These items can be transported by wind and rain into drainage networks or rivers that then transported to sea.

    Holidaymakers visiting beaches and disposing of bottles and food packaging on the sand also directly contributes to plastic getting into the ocean.
     
  2. Microbeads - Tiny pieces of plastic called microbeads are contained within various personal care and cosmetic products that are washed directly down the drain – e.g. face scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes. Many of these microbead particles are too small to be filtered out by wastewater plants and may end up flowing into the ocean. Public outrage at these microbeads polluting our oceans in addition to environmental campaigning has led to governments across the world banning products from containing microbeads, including the UK, US and Canada.
  3. Industrial leakage - Finally, poor standards in industrial processes are responsible for some plastic moving into the environment, either when products containing plastic aren’t disposed of properly, or escaping during the production and/or transportation of products. For example, thousands of tiny plastic pellets used to produce plastic products, known as nurdles or mermaid’s tears, are washed up on beaches every year (Greenpeace, 2018).

Ocean Plastics

Packaging accounts for the largest end use of plastic representing just over 40% of total plastic usage. Annually approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide i.e. 1 million per minute. Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.

Similarly, a million plastic bottles are transported around the world every minute and this figure will increase by another 20% by 2021. Current estimates are that more than half a trillion plastic bottles will be sold annually by the end of the decade. This demand, equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being sold every second, is being caused by an increased desire for bottled water and beverages globally. As their use increases worldwide, attempts to recycle the bottles to prevent them from polluting the oceans, are failing to keep up. Less than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were recycled into new bottles. Instead most plastic bottles produced end up in landfills or in the oceans.

However, most plastic bottles used for beverages are produced from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), which is highly recyclable. Plastic bottles comprise a large element of the huge surge in usage of Pet material first utilised in the 1940s. Most of the plastic produced since then still exists; the petrochemical-based compound takes hundreds of years to decompose.

Whilst plastic make enter oceans at a given location, once there, it can travel thousands of kilometeres from its origin over time. This subsequently damages thousands of kilometeres of oceanic environment and has detrimental consequences for species ingesting such plastics. Please click here for an interactive map of the movement of plastic waste around the world's oceans.

Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic makes its way into the world’s oceans each year and is ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research. Scientists warn that some of it is already making its way into the human food chain, with recent calculations estimating that people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Studies have also found plastic in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.

In 2017, scientists found nearly 18 tonnes of plastic on one of the world’s most isolated and uninhabited islands in the South Pacific Ocean. However, making bottles out of 100% recycled plastic uses 75% less energy than creating virgin plastic bottles (Guardian, 2017), and offers an alternative to the throw away culture associated with plastic waste. 

Ireland and plastic waste

Much of Ireland's plastic waste recycling has, until recently, been exported. For instance, China took 95% of Ireland’s plastic waste in 2016. However, a Chinese ban on the importation of plastic waste from EU countries in 2018 means that exporting plastic waste is no longer possible. This poses a significant challenge for the country as Ireland is the largest producer of plastic waste in the European Union. Engaging in ways to reduce plastic waste production in Ireland is subsequently a key environmental challenge and need for individuals, industry and the government if damage to the environment and people's health are to be minimised. Details on what you can do to reduce your plastic waste can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency's website, and include simple steps such as:

  • Carrying a reusable water bottle
  • Saying no to plastic straws
  • Taking a reusable coffee cup
  • Avoiding excessive food packaging
  • Saying no to disposable cutlery
  • Avoiding products with microbeads
  • Carrying a shopping bag

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