Plastic: is it all bad?

What’s fantastic about plastic?

Ever since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, plastic has become public enemy number one but, before we get into the downside we need to give plastic its due. Plastic is an important material which plays a vital role in modern medicine, household appliances such as fridges and reducing energy costs (making products more lightweight). Another benefit of plastic is that it can usually be recycled and reused.

So, what’s the problem?

Ocean plastics, most of which come from developing countries, are a symptom of a bigger problem: we are making too much plastic, especially single-use plastic, and are not properly managing the waste we do produce.

This problem is much worse in developing countries where two billion people do not have their rubbish collected!

In poor communities waste, including plastic is often dumped in drains and waterways. Some of this may end up in oceans but it also creates blockages and causes flooding when the rains come spreading diseases such as diarrhoea. If it is not dumped, it will be burnt in the open air leading to air pollution and respiratory diseases. Open burning as it’s known causes 270,000 deaths a year. Burning plastic, as well as e-waste, is particularly toxic for people’s health.  

What changes can we make in our own lives?

We can make changes in our own lives to help clean up the planet and show how it’s possible to break our world’s addiction to plastic. The first step is to reduce our use of single-use plastics (SUPs) such as plastic bags, coffee cups, plastic plates, cutlery, bottles of water and soft drinks etc. We can switch to using products with no plastic packaging such as bars of soap and shampoo. Often we can just do without things (this will make the biggest difference!) or if that’s not possible we can try reusable products instead. However, it’s important to understand that reusable products often have a much bigger environmental footprint than plastic, so they should genuinely be reused many many times. If we can’t reduce or reuse, then recycling plastic is the next best thing we can do.

Our clothes are made of plastic? Seriously?

Yes! Most clothing is now made of plastic and so everytime we wash our clothes they produce micro-plastics which end up in our oceans and drinking water. You can now buy bags that filter microfibers for use in your washing machine.

Switching to natural fibres can be a good choice but in order to have an environmental benefit, these should be organic; for example, cotton production is one of the most polluting, water-intensive industries worldwide. Again, reducing our purchase of new clothing is the best and cheapest thing we can do.

What do governments and companies need to do?

We need action on two fronts. Firstly, governments need to make cleaning up and collecting waste a much bigger priority in developing countries. Just 0.3 per cent of global aid is currently spent on waste management. Increasing global aid for waste collection to three per cent could reach all two billion people currently without waste collection, directly improving public health in developing countries.

But we also need governments to introduce laws and incentives to cut down the use of plastics and aim to phase out single-use plastics completely. Companies should be required to improve the design of plastic products to make them easier to recycle. In developing countries, this is more difficult for governments to implement and will take time with support from richer countries. Companies operating in those countries don’t need to wait for the government to act though, they can start taking responsibility now by eliminating unnecessary packaging and products as well as making necessary plastics much easier to reuse and recycle.

Tearfund have already been petitioning the government to do more to help developing countries tackle the issue of waste – and there’s much more action to come. Stay tuned for all the latest updates!

You can also let us know what action you have been taking in your life to cut down on how much plastic you use @WeAreTearfund. 

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