Save money and the environment
PLASTIC: Plastic is a hot topic of discussion right now, but why? The main reason is that since we started producing this amazing material, none of it has gone away, and it is accumulating in our seas, rivers, deserts and countryside at an alarming rate (current estimates indicate about 6.4 million tons a year). Plastic is a man-made material which means there are very few organisms that can naturally break it down. Unlike organic debris which is biodegradable, plastics only disintegrate into ever smaller pieces and this process continues right down to molecular level.
plastic and Its uses
Plastic in the UK
In the UK alone:
What is plastic?
Plastic is any synthetic or semi-synthetic organic polymer and the name “plastic” refers to the property of plasticity, which is the ability to deform without breaking.
For the chemists amongst you, most plastics are formed in chains called organic polymers made up from thousands of small repeating molecules called monomers. The vast majority of these polymers are formed from chains of carbon atoms, sometimes with the intermittent addition of oxygen, nitrogen, or sulphur in the chain.
To customize the properties of a plastic, different molecular groups "hang" from this backbone, and it is the structure of these side chains that influences the properties of the polymer. On top of this polymers used to make a plastic are almost always mixed with additives, including colourants, plasticizers, stabilizers, and fillers. These additives affect the chemical composition, chemical properties, and mechanical properties of plastics, and further increase possible applications.
Plastic comes in so many different forms that it would take a book just to describe them all, so to make life simple here is a brief look at the most common type of plastic on the planet i.e. Polyethylene or polythene. The annual global production is around 80 million tonnes and its primary use is in packaging and containers e.g. Plastic bags, plastic films, geomembranes, and bottles. Even polyethylene has a whole host of forms but most have the same chemical formula of (C2H4) repeated over and over again.
It is such a simple concept but has so much flexibility and strength at the same time.
The raw materials for this and other plastics come from many places (some even use salt!), but most have been made from the hydrocarbons that are readily available in natural gas, oil and coal, not surprisingly 5% of the world’s oil production currently goes into its manufacture.
Apart from the myriad of plastic forms, there are two basic types, thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers. The former can be heated and re-moulded over and over again and are relatively easy to recycle whereas the latter solidify into a permanent shape, and can be a recycling nightmare.
Why plastic is amazing
The first documented plastic was created in 1855 by the British inventor and metallurgist Alexander Parkes who used natural cellulose in combination with nitric acid and chemical solvents to create a plastic he patented as "Parkesine." However the first totally human-made, completely synthetic plastic came about in 1907 when Belgian-born, New York-based Leo Baekeland used hydrocarbon chemicals he derived from coal to create Bakelite. Initially this material was used in radio and television casings, kitchenware and even toys, then as an understanding of it’s versatility increased it came to be known as ‘the material of a thousand uses’.
And so we emerged the plastic era and it especially took off following World War II when it was used to make all kinds of day to day household items.
Today there are thousands of different types of plastics, worldwide we manufacture around 300 million tonnes of the stuff. Not surprising really because it is strong, versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, durable, virtually indestructible, chemical resistant and low cost.
These are wonderful useful qualities, and plastic plays many important roles in life on Earth.
Think about its uses:
Why plastic is a disaster for the environment
Now we need to look at why plastic is so bad for our environment and us.
At last we have cottoned on to the fact that plastic is causing unprecedented environmental problems and harbours serious health risks.
Every part of the lifetime of plastic leads to environmental pollution. The manufacture of plastic, as well as its destruction by incineration, pollutes air, land and water and exposes workers to toxic chemicals, including carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals).
As we have mentioned several times, synthetic plastic does not biodegrade. If dumped in landfill it just sits and accumulates or pollutes the environment. Plastics have become a municipal waste nightmare, prompting local governments all over the world to implement plastic bag, and increasingly polystyrene bans - hooray!
Plastic pollution may not even be visible to the naked eye as research is showing that microscopic plastic particles are present in the air at various locations throughout the world and in all major oceans. Plastic is now ubiquitous in our terrestrial, aquatic and airborne environments - that is, it's everywhere...
Plastic in our oceans
Plastics appear as pollutants in the aqueous environment in various forms, the most commonly known are macroscopic pieces, microbeads and micro-plastic fibres.
Plastic is referred to as macroscopic if particles are more than about 5 mm. Found especially in the aquatic environment, macroscopic plastic can be dumped, blown or washed into our oceans. Plastic bags in particular pose a serious danger to larger organisms.
Microbeads are manufactured solid plastic particles of less than one millimetre. They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be made of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene. They are used in exfoliating personal care products, toothpastes and in biomedical and health-science research.
Microbeads are washed down our sinks and find their way to rivers and eventually the sea where they can cause plastic particle water pollution and pose an environmental hazard for aquatic animals in freshwater and ocean water.
Thankfully America and UK have now banned the use of these products, however there is still a huge residual reservoir of beads in the environment and many countries have not yet banned them.
Synthetic clothing materials are made from micro-plastic fibres woven together. When we wash these clothes, hundreds of thousands of the fibres are shed into our water system and they eventually end up in our seas in vast volumes. These fibres are tiny - 0.000015m in diameter and 6mm long.
A 6kg wash load can produce vast numbers of micro-plastic fibres
They cause a huge problem for organisms at planktonic level in our seas and from this level make their way up the food chain, eventually to us.
Plastic pollution in our oceans is on a global scale, in just 100 years, we have succeeded in polluting every single part of our planet.
In 2011 it was estimated that there were 5.25 trillion particles of plastic in our seas and within 30 years the mass of plastic will be greater than the entire biomass of plants and organisms living in the aquatic environment.
Many of us are now aware of the vast plastic garbage patch in the Pacific ocean, but similar problems are present in every other ocean as well.
These mass concentrations of plastic are caused by gyres. A gyre is a rotating ocean current which as it slowly turns pushes marine debris particles such as plastics, chemical sludge and other rubbish towards it’s centre. The area of this pollution in the Northern Pacific where plastic is at least 5.1mg / cubic metre throughout the water column is thought to be anything from 700,000 to 15,000,000 square kilometres.
On the whole these plastic pieces are at microscopic level so we do not even see them - it is east to adopt an ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude to this problem!
Plastic particles in bottled water
The State University of New York in Fredonia tested many major brands of bottled water and found that nearly all of them contained tiny particles of plastic.
The research, based on analysis of 250 bottles from 9 different countries, discovered an average of 10 plastic particles per litre, each larger than the width of a human hair.
No-one knows what the long term effects on human health will be, but the discovery is a worrying development.
The danger of plastics to all organisms
The macroscopic (visible to the naked eye) level
At the macroscopic level, plastics can be ingested by a whole range of organisms such as whales, dolphins, turtles and even albatrosses.
Many of these organisms mistake the plastic as food sources and eat large volumes in a relatively short period of time. A particularly sad example of this mistaken identity is shown by turtles which eat floating carrier bags thinking they are jellyfish (which they prey on). The bags remain in the stomach of the turtle and eventually the poor animal starves to death.
Another species particularly prone to plastic ingestion is the Laysan Albatross. In a study of 1.5 million birds that inhabit Midway Island in the Pacific, it was found nearly all had plastic in their digestive system. Approximately one-third of their chicks die, and many of those deaths are due to being fed plastic from their parents. Twenty tons of plastic debris washes up on Midway every year with five tons of that debris being fed to Albatross chicks.
There is the additional problem of animals, birds and fish being trapped in plastic. Once trapped they inevitably die. Six pack rings pose a particularly nasty risk. There are endless images on the internet of these wrapped around sea birds and other marine organisms and eventually they die a slow lingering death. Here’s where you can make a difference, if you see an intact ring, cut it open or better still, pick it up and recycle it.
In total millions of birds and marine animals die each year from consuming or becoming caught in plastic and other debris.
The microscopic level
Microbeads and similar sized particles of plastic affect organisms lower down the food chain. For example small fish will mistake the particles for planktonic food and eat them. Once again they may die of starvation.
At the lower end of the food chain we find plankton and filter feeders. These organisms are most vulnerable to pollution from tiny plastic particles including micro-plastic fibres. They ingest the plastic pieces which can lead to blockages and death.
Effects of plastic toxins and absorbed chemicals
At another level plastic pollution is manifesting itself in far more sinister ways.
Firstly - plastics contain additives that are toxic and they also absorb toxins already present in the aquatic environment. When ingested these toxins pass into the tissues of the feeding organism, accumulating there and poisoning whatever has eaten the plastic.
Secondly - toxins in plastic additives such as phthalates can leach out of the plastic into the aquatic environment, poisoning filter feeding organisms that absorb the chemicals.
Some of these toxins are known to be very dangerous for example:
By our own hand we are poisoning ourselves...
Health problems caused by toxins from plastics
Evidence is growing that chemicals leached from plastics used in cooking and food/drink storage and passing up the food chain to our dinner plate are harmful to human health. Some of the most disturbing of these are hormone-mimicking, endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates in PVC.
The plastic polycarbonate - used for water bottles and various other items requiring a hard, clear plastic - is composed primarily of BPA. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked BPA to health problems that include chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, impaired brain and neurological functions, cancer, cardiovascular system damage, adult-onset diabetes, early puberty, obesity and resistance to chemotherapy.
Exposure to BPA at a young age can cause genetic damage, and BPA has been linked to recurrent miscarriage in women.
Of the thousands of chemical additives in plastics - and which manufacturers are not required to disclose - one type commonly added to plastics are "plasticizers," which are softening agents making it easier for the polymer chains to move and flex. For example, the commonly used and extremely toxic plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can contain up to 55% plasticizing additives by weight. These are generally phthalate chemicals. Phthalates are known to disrupt the endocrine system as well, and have been linked to numerous health conditions including cancers. Certain phthalates have already been banned in Europe and the U.S. for use in certain products, such as toys.
The health risks of plastic are significantly amplified in children, whose immune and organ systems are developing and are more vulnerable. The evidence of health risks from certain plastics is increasingly appearing in established, peer-reviewed scientific journals.
If plastics are slowly poisoning us then we need to press our governments for drastic action. They soon responded to ban smoking, but this is an altogether bigger problem.
Plastics are poisoning us all and we need to see a big response from big business and politicians at the top, down to us all as individuals to this ever growing disaster.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Save money and save plastic
It can be 1,000 times more expensive than tap water! Would you rather pay £1 for 1 litre of water or just 0.01p? Why not buy one plastic bottle and fill it repeatedly with tap water? You will save a lot of money also reduce your plastic waste imprint. A win win! If you were only buying bottled water 3 times a week, minimising that could save around £150 per year and potentially remove more than 100 bottles from the sea of plastic.
Did you know the average family wastes £700 worth of food per year. Buy what you need, try to avoid over spending and wasting loads of food plus all the packaging. Take a list and stick to it!!
If you fancy a coffee, pop into one of the major chains but take your own cup. Some of them will now fill your cup and give you a 20p to 50p discount on the coffee. A nice little saving and a help to reduce the billions of takeaway coffee cups that end up in landfill. Sadly it is the small percentage of plastic mixed with wood pulp in the cup that makes them so difficult to recycle.
Go for a healthier, cheaper and less polluting option, such as an apple. A loose apple has no packaging and will cost around 35p compared to an average packet of crisps at 60p. If you did this every working day that is a saving of £1.25 per week or £50 per year. On top of that most crisp and sweet packaging is not recyclable so you also avoid dumping plastic into land-fill or maybe even the sea.
If you are buying loose items it is even more important to take your own carrier bags. We wince whenever we see someone shelling out 5p per bag, it’s such a waste of money and plastic. Since our government brought in the pay for bags law, single use bag volumes have decreased by 80% (about 7 billion bags). We can do it, we just need a little persuasion.
You tend to save money and reduce packaging at the same time. For example, if you buy recycled toilet rolls from Sainsbury’s you pay £3.30 for a pack of 9, compared to £1.80 for a pack of 4, that’s a saving of 19.5%. Reduced packaging for bulk buying works as follows. The surface area to volume ratio reduces as items become larger, so relatively speaking a larger pack requires less packaging per item. We hope that makes sense!
This applies to any product wrapped in plastic so always look to buy bulk items. If you extend this to food it still works, but beware, if you have too much of one item it may go off. The easy solution is to cook in batches and freeze any excess for another day. This is a 3 way win: saved money, saved packaging and saved time!
Just pile them into your trolley or basket, take them to the checkout and then put them straight into your carrier bag. No plastic is used, and you can save money. Here is a perfect example: Royal Gala apples from Sainsbury’s. A pack of 4 apples weighed 630g and cost £1.45, that is £2.30 per kg, the loose apples were £2.00 per kg, a 15% saving.
Alternatively, try going to a local market, it’s even simpler. Just take your own bags and the stall holder will pour the fruit and veg straight in. No packaging and big money savings. Just be aware that some of this produce can go off quickly so only buy what you need.
If you have the inclination and the space how about growing some of your own produce. You only need a windowsill in the sun to grow cress or lettuce or a few carrots. For the more adventurous of you with a garden, try setting aside an area to grow carrots, tomatoes, beetroot, radishes, lettuce, parsnips, leeks and whatever else grabs your fancy, it’s all pretty simple. Just 3 x 1m areas can supply a whole range of products in good volumes, you can save £££’s if you are clever. And just wait until you tuck into that grub, it tastes so much better, and of course there is no plastic!!
Here is just one example, a well known brand of pre-prepared bagged carrots in Sainsbury’s costs £1.67/kg, whereas the same brand of carrots sold intact and loose was just £0.60/kg (we weighed them!!). Take into account the actions of topping, tailing and peeling (a loss of about 15% of the mass of the carrot) and the saving is just under £1.00/kg. Also think about the reduced plastic waste. Big savings all round.
Refill your 1 litre spray bottle every month and you’ll save about £4.80 per year, and reduce your plastic pollution by up to 12 times.
A beautiful bunch of blooms for your partner, what a lovely idea! Unfortunately it may not be... Those flowers are wrapped in plastic, they may have come from Kenya or a greenhouse in the Netherlands, bumping up your CO₂ imprint as well as your plastic mini mountain.
Once planted out, seedlings are vulnerable to attack from pigeons, slugs and many other pests so it is a good idea to protect them with a cloche. Rather than buying a bespoke plastic product ask your friends and family for old plastic drinks bottles, cut off the bottom, secure them over your plants and hey presto you have a ready made cloche to help young plants until they are established and growing strongly. 10 of these can save you £40 compared to an equivalent shop bought product.
By making your own plant pots you avoid the cost of buying plastic ones. After making the first 24 pots (to cover the cost of the potter) you will save about 50p per plant, which is £25 per 50 plants.
A new recycling idea from Ecofrenzy
How about something revolutionary in the world of recycling?
Why don’t we make it so simple that we all know which packaging can be recycled and where we put it?
How many times do you have a look at a piece of plastic film or a plastic tray engulfing a small morsel of food and wonder, is that recyclable?
Currently we look for some kind of recycling mark or symbol and then become confused as to what it means.
Here's a simple solution!
All councils in UK come together and agree on a uniform number and colour of bins for each household. At the same time they have to agree which materials they can all recycle (initially this could be a stumbling block as different councils have different recycling facilities, however nothing is insurmountable, as other countries have proved).
Next the joint councils go to packaging manufacturers and ask for a simple change to packaging.
If a material can be recycled it has a blue bin shape printed in a prominent position, if organic and compostable material, then a green bin shape is printed. Similarly if a material is not recyclable, then it has a black bin shape printed instead.
Then all consumers simply marry up the colour bin shape on the packaging to the correct colour bin outside their home, and hey presto, recycling made easy for everyone.
Alternatives to Plastic
There are and always were many alternatives to plastics. Glass, wood, stainless steel, natural rubber, wool, hemp, bamboo, jute and cotton are just a few.
Have a look at the Marine Conservation Society's Plastic Challenge Shop for a whole range of alternative products. Alternatively, below is a table compiled by Sustainable Baby Steps which shows how some alternatives can be used...
Ideas to reduce micro plastic fibres from synthetic clothing
Earlier we discussed the problems caused by micro plastic fibres from synthetic clothing, here we give you a few simple ideas to make a significant difference.
Take a look at your buying habits - if you really need to make a fashion statement make sure the item is made from natural materials such as cotton or wool.
Try the following actions, they all result in the release of less fibres:
If you want to extend your actions:
There is a growing community of people and organisations all over the world who are working to decrease plastic use and pollution and create tangible change at all levels - personal, local, regional, national and global. Join the ever increasing number of people who are getting involved, here are a few organisations specifically taking action to reduce plastic:
Great ideas to help reduce plastic in our environment
Most of the ideas for alternative materials, re-using and re-cycling plastics are for new products, however what should we do with the millions of tonnes of plastics already in our seas? Here are a few ideas that could help...
The ocean clean-up
For the future, ‘The ocean clean-up’ aims to strip 70 million kilos of plastic from the sea in 10 years.
A 100-kilometre array of floating barriers designed by Dutch engineering student Boyan Slat (a 20-year-old inventor) aims to clear the oceans of waste plastic.
Described as ‘the largest structure ever deployed on the oceans’, the barriers would be arranged in two 50km arms connected to a central platform, forming a V-shape. These would only filter the top three metres of water, as Slat's studies found that this was where the highest concentration of plastic rubbish could be found in the world's oceans.
As plastic is caught in the array, the motion of the water would push it naturally towards the platform, where the debris can be extracted and sorted.
“The Ocean Cleanup estimates the cost of removing one kilogram of plastic at €4.53” said the organisation. "This is 33 times cheaper than conventional ocean clean-up methods, while also being an estimated 7,900 times faster."
At a more local level we find the Sea Bin Project.
Two Australians have invented something similar to an automated pool cleaner - used in marinas, harbours, ports and even inland waters like rivers and lakes - it sucks up rubbish, while filtering out the water. They call it the ‘Seabin’ and already have units in operation. It is an ongoing project and the idea looks set to catch on around the world.
This Floating Platform Could Filter the Plastic from our Polluted Oceans
Cristian Ehrmantraut has developed a prototype for a floating platform that filters the ocean and absorbs plastic. Located 4 km from the coast of Easter Island, close to the centre of the mega-vortex of plastic located in the South Pacific, the tetrahedral platform performs a kind of dialysis, allowing the natural environment to be recovered as well as energy and food to be produced.
These and other ideas are needed now to help clean our oceans!
EcoFrenzy has researched the market and to the best of our knowledge, figures and data are accurate at the time of publication. EcoFrenzy is not responsible for any inaccuracies and will not engage in correspondence, but will update facts and figures when necessary or appropriate.
The data we use to work out energy and water costs come from a range of reliable international sources to give an average figure. Figures are rounded up or down to the nearest whole number.
* Total amounts potentially saved do not include lighting in individual rooms, or use of secondary heating.