This Blog was actually written by Lola in 2020 but was never published. We think it should be so here it is.
In the last few years there has been a real effort to cut down on plastics, especially single-use. In 2019, however, the world saw the rise of the Coronavirus pandemic. With it came an increase in the use of plastic masks, PPE and hand sanitiser bottles, as well as the increased idea that plastic-wrapped items were somehow safer than others. Of course, masks and PPE have been a very real necessity during this pandemic, and plastic is cheap and readily available, making it a more accessible material for everyone. But we have already started to see plastic masks washed up on beaches and littered around public areas.
The question that has been growing in my mind is, where is all this surplus plastic waste going?
If you read my last blogpost on plastic vs glass, then you will know that only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled. To a lot of people this seems absurd – the amount of plastic that we all put in recycling bins surely must count for something! However, despite the percentage of waste recycled increasing over the years in the UK, a lot of our waste (recycling and other) ends up somewhere else and is often not properly disposed of. The UK creates waste at a faster rate that we can handle, producing roughly 1.1kg of waste per person per day. So, most of our waste is shipped off to other countries for them to dispose of. In fact, two-thirds of plastic waste in the UK is sent overseas. But sending material abroad for recycling doesn’t necessarily mean it actually gets recycled.
Until recently, most of our surplus waste (and other countries’) was shipped to China. In 2018 though, China stopped accepting other countries’ plastic, unless it was at least 99.5% pure. This opened up opportunities for other countries, such as Turkey, Malaysia, The Netherlands, Poland, and more to accept our rubbish. However, it also meant that the price of plastics plummeted to the point that it was not economically worth recycling.
You may be thinking, so what if we ship our rubbish off to somewhere else to be recycled and properly disposed of? If they’re getting paid and we are finding a way to dispose of our excess waste, then why shouldn’t the government continue to do this?
The issue is that a few of these countries are not correctly disposing of imported waste. In Malaysia there are lots of illegal waste sites. The global illegal waste trade is estimated by the UN to be worth about £9.5 billion a year. These illegal waste sites burn the rubbish or dump it in the ocean instead of putting it in proper landfill or recycling. Currently, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam are in the top 10 for the quantity of waste plastics polluting the ocean. Despite the Malaysian government’s shutdown between 2019 and 2020 of 218 plastic recycling factories for non-compliance of regulations, the UK still exports plastic waste to Malaysia. When you pair this with the fact that in 2019 the UK exported 0.5 million tonnes of plastic waste (which was the lowest amount in a decade!), it becomes apparent why there is still such a huge plastic problem.
Other countries that deal with our waste have been known to use shredded plastic as a layer of topsoil to cover landfill instead of proper and safer materials. Shredded plastic can easily become contaminated and can then affect the surrounding environment. The shredded plastic topsoil has been shown to have concentrations of cadmium and lead – both of which can cause permanent and sometimes fatal damage to humans. There is no safe level of lead in a person’s body, and the smallest amount can be passed onto children. But shredded plastic is only one of the issues. When plastic is burned, it produces and releases harmful chemicals that are more mobile and airborne than their source plastics. These chemicals, along with solid pieces of plastic contaminants, pollute the water in the surrounding area. A Greenpeace investigation in 2018 discovered that the soil and water near the illegal dump sites are in Malaysia contained heavy metals and toxic chemicals.
These issues are enough to write about in their own right, however what is just as concerning, and perhaps more on people’s radar is that a lot of the waste that is exported to other countries is simply dumped in the ocean. In fact, more than 8 million pieces of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year. We are all told not to litter on beaches or on a boat, but not as many people know about the amount of waste that is dumped in our ocean by illegal waste disposal. When the West had to find new countries to export to after China refused to accept most waste, other countries soon became overwhelmed with plastic. This has led to plastic accumulating and being blown away into rivers, streams and eventually the ocean. Some of it is simply just dumped straight into the ocean.
There is currently a plastic gyre, known as the North Pacific sub-tropical gyre, that covers an area in the Pacific Ocean the size of Turkey. A gyre is a large system of swirling ocean currents. In the North Pacific, where ocean currents meet, is also where the plastic is washed away to. So it is now known as a plastic gyre, with the more common name ‘Trash Vortex’. Every day this ‘Trash Vortex’ grows more and more, the water circulating more and more plastic towards it. This area has about six times more plastic debris than plankton. About a fifth of marine litter is made up of fishing gear and other materials lost at sea by accident, industrial losses, or illegal dumping, but roughly 80% of litter in the seas comes from land. That means it comes from throwing plastic in the bin instead of recycling, littering, and throwing products down drains (think wipes and sanitary products). So a lot of the plastic that goes to landfill instead of being recycled, has the potential to blow away into the ocean.
What’s clear about this is that we have a plastic problem. This once deemed miracle-material is now plaguing our lives, as dramatic as it may sound. As the saying goes, if your bath is overflowing, you don’t reach for the mop, you simply turn off the tap. I think I would change that saying slightly: first we turn off the tap and then we can reach for the mop. There is no point in trying to get rid of an issue by sending the after-effects to another country. What we need is to stop producing so much plastic. Only then can we deal with the excess waste. Our planet is overflowing with plastic, so we need to stop producing it. Then we can continue to handle the waste effectively and properly.
What we have to remember though, is that change takes time and in order for us to ‘turn off the tap’ we have to do so in a gradual way. The change must also come from the larger companies that can afford to make the expensive changes now, so that smaller businesses can then afford to switch to better materials. It is difficult for everyone to make changes when they are expensive and there are imperfect solutions. For example, here at HayMax we are in the process of finding a plastic-free material for our pots. But this process has been long and difficult. If we do switch to our current top alternative choice, then this will cost three times as much as our current pots. Furthermore, these new pots won’t be perfect, whilst they are biodegradable, they are not easily compostable. So as you can see, change is a process which takes time, but it is absolutely worth the effort and the wait.
The more energy and time put into creating alternative packaging and materials will result in those materials becoming less expensive and more readily available for everyone. But until businesses start to utilise more environmentally friendly materials, the cycle of producing and disposing of plastic will continue.