Plastic Waste Management

We all know that plastic is a problem. Despite it having many positive qualities – cheap, easy to make, flexible and accessible – it’s becoming increasingly clear that plastic waste is out of control and causing huge damage to the environment. For example, 12 million tonnes of plastic are poured into the ocean every year, and scientists have recently discovered microplastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice. But what’s the solution?

In this article, we’ll discuss what plastic pollution is, what causes it, and why it’s detrimental to the planet and the health of living creatures. Then we’ll give 20 tips on how you can personally reduce the amount of plastic waste you create, from avoiding single-use plastics to putting pressure on manufacturers. 

What is plastic pollution?

So what exactly is plastic pollution? Essentially, it’s the accumulation of synthetic plastic products in the environment that reaches an extent where it causes problems for wildlife habitats, ecosystems and human populations. 

Initially, plastic use was revolutionary. However, by the end of the 20th century, we were seeing plastic pollution span all kinds of environments, including the bottom of the ocean and high in the mountains. In our open step about alternatives to fossil-fuel-derived plastics, you can find some shocking statistics about plastic pollution.

In 2016, The World Economic Forum found that 78 million tonnes of plastic is produced annually, and only 14% is recycled, and 32% is leaked into the environment. Furthermore, they found that in 2014, the ratio of fish to plastic was 5:1. They predicted that by 2050 this ratio would be 1:1, so there would be as much plastic as fish. So clearly, this is pollution on an enormously detrimental scale. 

What are the causes of plastic pollution?

There are plenty of causes of plastic pollution, but we’ve detailed the most prominent causes below. Some of these causes are complicated to tackle, but having knowledge of them can help us make more informed decisions as we consume. 

  • We create large amounts of waste. A lot of our waste is made of plastic, and we create a lot of litter as a society. If we were less wasteful, we could make a difference in this area.
  • Commercial fishing nets. While sometimes necessary, fishing nets can leak toxins, break and pollute oceans, and even stay permanently and trap sea life. Better management and harsher fishing laws are needed.
  • Mismanaged plastic disposal. So much plastic doesn’t get recycled when it should – instead, it goes to landfills or ends up scattered around the landscape. It is also often burned, releasing fossil fuels and creating air pollution.
  • Decomposition time. It takes over 400 years for plastic to decompose, which is an incredibly long time considering the amount of plastic we need to get rid of.
  • Nature spreads pollution. Unfortunately, the wind, rivers, and ocean can all spread pollution naturally due to the commonly lightweight nature of plastic.
  • Overuse of plastic. This is the biggest cause – we overproduce plastic to an enormous extent. We can’t possibly manage the amount of waste created.

Why plastic waste is damaging the planet

While this article will focus on what you can do individually to reduce plastic waste, it’s worth mentioning some of the ways that plastic is damaging the planet and those who live on it. For more detailed information, check out our complete guide to climate change here.

  • It disrupts the food chain. This happens in many ways, but one notable example is animals eating plastics and this getting passed down the food chain and damaging the health of these animals.
  • It can be dangerous for human health. Plastics getting into our food supply can also negatively impact our health, as we’re consuming poisonous substances.
  • Groundwater pollution can affect our water supply. Plastics in our water supplies can release a lot of harmful toxins that end up going into our bodies, yet again. 
  • It’s harmful to animals. Besides being harmful to consume, animals can also be injured or even killed by plastic. Marine animals often get trapped in nets, and land animals suffocate in plastic bags.
  • It causes land, air and water pollution. Plastic causes all kinds of pollution – we’ve spoken about land and water pollution, but it also creates air pollution just by being created in the first place.
  • Clearing areas of plastic waste is difficult and expensive. The amount of plastic waste in the world is so huge that it’s extremely difficult to get rid of it and requires a lot of money.

How can we reduce our plastic waste?

Now onto the most important part – how can we make a difference? Luckily there are several changes you can implement as an individual that can have a positive impact. However, it is worth mentioning that individual actions are not enough by themselves. 

In our interview with Professor Karl Williams at the University of Central Lancashire, he describes how legislation and policy are key to tackling global plastic pollution. This can be anything from laws about littering to waste shipment and waste management legislation.

So keep in mind, throughout these tips, that there are things beyond your control. You can, however, try to sway governments and politicians in your direction by emailing them, signing petitions and protesting. From there, governments can put pressure on manufacturers and corporations to make changes. 

Without further ado, here are 20 tips on how you can reduce plastic waste in your daily life: 

1. Recycle when possible (and do it properly)

Recycling, whenever you can, has a positive impact on the planet as it prevents too many plastics from ending up in landfills. Of course, recycling systems aren’t perfect, but recycling is still more productive than chucking everything in the same bin.

Different countries have different recycling systems and rules, but here are three rules that generally can be followed no matter where you are:

  1. Recycle clean bottles, cans, paper and cardboard.
  2. Don’t put food or liquids in your recycling.
  3. No loose plastic bags or recycled goods should be placed in plastic bags.

2. Avoid single-use plastics

Single-use plastic items are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to plastic pollution. You might find it harder than you’d think to stay away from them, but noticing how prevalent they are in daily life is a good first step. 

Some common examples that contain single-use plastic include plastic-wrapped vegetables in supermarkets, wet wipes, cotton buds, plastic cutlery, coffee cups, straws, sanitary products and cigarettes. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives if you look for them.

3. Use alternative packaging 

If you own a small business, it can really make a difference if you look for alternative packaging options. Whether you own a cafe or have a small business on Etsy, you could try more sustainable packaging options, including paper and cardboard. If you work in the food industry, you might be interested in our Introduction to Sustainable Practices in Food Service course by International Culinary Studio.

Sometimes, we do need packaging that at least emulates plastic in order to protect products, particularly when it comes to food. Bioplastics are plastics made from renewable, bio-based materials like cellulose, and they have the potential to biodegrade more quickly than normal plastics.

4. Do a trash audit

A trash audit is basically where you take a look at your rubbish and track what you’re throwing away frequently. Often, we throw things away without a second thought, so this is a great way of understanding exactly how much waste we create. A trash audit also allows us to find substitutes for our most regularly discarded items.

For example, if you find a lot of coffee cups in the trash, you know it’s time to buy a reusable cup. Alternatively, if you have a lot of crisp packets, consider buying a bigger packet next time and finding packaging that’s recyclable. Or, you could look into a scheme like Terracycle that helps you recycle crisp packets. 

5. Find reusable options 

We touched on this in our previous points about single-use plastics, but finding reusable alternatives is the best way to ensure that you stop using so many single-use plastic items. These don’t have to be fancy bamboo alternatives either – even placing regular metal cutlery in your bag, or taking an old plastic water bottle with you to work will suffice.

There are even alternative options to things like clingfilm – learn to make your own zero-waste bio-based clingfilm in our open step. To learn more about making sustainable choices, join our Exploring Sustainable Living and Loving with Mogli course by Tommy Hilfiger.

6. Grow your own food

As we mentioned earlier, lots of vegetables and fruits are covered in plastics at the supermarket. To avoid this problem entirely whilst also learning to be more self-sufficient, why not try growing your own food? With help from our course How to Grow Healthy Plants by Gardeners World Magazine, you’ll be growing your own herbs and veggies in no time.

7. Buy from local markets and low-waste shops

If you don’t quite have the time and energy to grow your own food, consider buying food from local markets and low-waste shops instead. Depending on the country you live in, buying from markets can be either more or less expensive than supermarkets – so it’s a good idea to do some research beforehand and find the best option for you. 

Low-waste shops are notably more expensive, but they can be a great option for dried goods such as pasta, rice, pulses and nuts. You usually bring your own containers with you and fill them as needed – no waste created! You can learn more about tackling food waste in our course, From Waste to Value: How to Tackle Food Waste.