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Turning the Tide on Plastic

Book cover

Author: Lucy Siegle

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Table of contents

Plastic in our environment is not litter. It is a pollutant from fast business serving society in the wrong way while outsourcing the cost to Mother Nature.

Since the 1950s we've produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic. Most of it is still with us. By 2015, 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated, 79% in landfills/environment.

We produce 320 million metric tonnes of new plastic each year, almost all from oil. 8 million tonnes of this leak into oceans and waterways. By 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish, by weight.

Some plastics are truly useful, e.g. polymers used for heart valves and bulletproof vests. We should fight against avoidable useless plastic being forced upon us.

Stopping the environmental disaster will require radical action. To be sustainable we must leave the earth in the same or better shape for the next generation.

Plastic is a fossil fuel product. 90% of the plastic we consume is virgin plastic made of oil. 8% of the barrels of oil we extract from the earth becomes plastic.

The world's most common plastic is polyethylene, which is used to make e.g. bottles and containers.

Plastic packing is increasingly used for food because it was cost-effective and made it easier for retailers and manufacturers to extend the shelf life of food. They argued it made food cheaper for everyone.

The age of plastic

The "shifting baseline" is a green movement concept whereby each generation treats the state of the world in their youth as the baseline to compare changes to. Over time this lowers society's expectations and ambitions around protecting the environment.

The first plastic in the world was known as "Parkesine", after it's inventor Alexander Parks. It's initial market was as a substitute for various "traditional" products previously obtained killing animals in the garment industry, such as the "tortoiseshell" obtained from hawksbill sea turtles. In this way it may have had an environmentally friendly impact - saving the hawksbills from extinction.

Following its invention, it was felt humans no longer had to be dictated to by nature.

The commercialization took off from the 1950s; within a decade 20 million plastic bags were being produced in the UK. The culture of make-do-or-mend went away. Marketers loved that consumers tended to buy more when it was wrapped in a bubble or tamper free pack.

A wake up call

The Blue Planet II documentary focussed the nation's attention on plastic pollution. The social media and press outcry following it translated in a 25 Year Environment Plan from the UK government in 2018, which included a commitment to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years. A few businesses joined the effort, but not the big retailers beholden to shareholders.

Recycling can be effective - recycling plastic reduces energy and resource use, harmful emissions and reduces landfill. But in the UK there is confusion over what actually happens to the rubbish we put in our recycling bins.

The landfill tax is current £88.95 per tonne of general waste, and we have got better at recycling - about middle of the table vs the rest of Europe.

But many of the plastics that are sent to Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) have low recycling rates. One estimate is only 10-15% of mixed plastics are recycled. They also can't keep pace with the amount of rubbish despite their expansion; we get through 5 million tonnes of plastic packaging a year in the UK vs having a capacity to recycle only 350,000 tonnes.

Waste giants need profit to satisfy their shareholders which is hard when the value of recyclate is low.

2 types of recycling:

Certain plastics aren't rated highly on the global recycling market or are difficult to process. They're often burned to produce electricity. Since 2008 legislation, incinerators are allowed to be described as "recovery facilities". But once burned the plastic is lost, so it's wasteful. Burning also releases emissions into the environment.

We export a lot of materials for recycling, 2.7 million tonnes to China/Hong Kong between 2012-2018. But in 2017 China clamped down and would only accept the cleanest materials. This led to UK local authorities reducing the types of materials they'd accept, whilst they look for other markets that don't care about the quality of their waste imports.

Until 2016 the UK had a statutory plastic packaging recycling target of 57%. That's since been reduced to 49%.

Understanding how plastic flows into and around the environment

The impact of the individual litter lout is often exaggerated, which lets the big culprits off.

Litter-louts do exist - men drop 3x as much litter as women, and 16-24 year olds drop twice as much as other age groups.

Education and surveillance have been proposed as the solution to littering. But studies suggest education isn't the real issue. Rather, funding cuts to local government have reduced street cleaning and sweeping, leaving litter. Manufacturers of single-use packaging have not been tackled, despite the fact that the 500% increase in litter since the 1960s mirrors the growth of the packaging industry.

We should prioritise reducing the sources of plastic. It's hard to deal with the 8-12 million tonnes of plastic waste once its already in the marine environment, 80% of which originates from the land, e.g. from overflowing bins.

One trash enters the ocean it settles into islands. There's a huge whirlpool of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), coverung 600,000 square miles of ocean, bigger than France or Texas. It weighs 79,000 tonnes, has 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish, almost all plastic. Some from 40 years ago has been found.

In water, macro plastics are tossed up against abrasive objects and broken down by UV rays until they become microplastics, a great risk to marine life.

Now we wear clothes made from synthetic man-made fibres, washing releases plastic microfibres into the environment - potentially 700k+ per machine wash.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) like DDT can adhere to microplastics. On land we have tried to phase POPs out, but now they can enter the food chain through via microplastics.

The average European seafood eater eats an estimated 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year. 83% of drinking water samples are contaminated. They've been found in salt, beer and honey.

A 4 cent charge on carrier bags that was introduced in Greece in 2018 caused usage to drop by 80% in the first month.

Our plastic footprint

Most of the 8 million pieces of waste that enter the world's marine environment every day are made of plastic. 70% of the rubbish sinks to the seabed, 15% drifts upwards in the water, and 15% is deposited on shores.

British household consumption is the "main engine of growth for the UK economy", representing 63% of GDP. But everything we consume depletes the earth's resources.

Mathis Wackernagel created a model to account for "ecological footprinting". Calculations showed that Western Europe consumers were using up resources faster than the planet could replenish them. If everyone consumed at UK rates we would need 3 planets worth of resources.

The annual Earth Overshoot Day occurs on the day that we exceed the earth's capacity to regenerate life-sustaining resources. In 2017 it was on 2nd August. Each year it is a few days earlier.

The UK's plastic footprint is 139-140kg per person per year - 3x the consumption rate in 1980.

We're 5th in the EU in terms of consumption single-use plastics. We'd be top 2 if it wasn't for the smoking ban, cigarette advertising regulations and education reducing the number of smokers - cigarette butts contain plastic.

67% of discarded plastic is packaging. ~40% of plastic in bins could be recycled, but the real rate is lower.

The toy industry is the most plastic-intensive, using 40 tonnes of plastic for every $1 million revenue.

Corporations often do not wish to share plastic consumption numbers. It's important that they do, not to name and shame, but rather to help understand what we need to do next.

Bans on certain plastic items (e.g. plastic straws) can be helpful, but tackle only that 1 item. Something else will take its place unless we change the culture and reduce the attractiveness of disposable products.

A toolbox to reduce your plastic footprint

The Mobius Loop has been adopted as an internationally recognised symbol of recycling, often alongside the slogan "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle".

But it was harder to recycle than we thought. The recycling symbol can be found on products like single-used coffee-cups where fewer than 0.1% are actually successfully recycled. A local authority accepting an item doesn't mean it'll actually be recycled.

The mobius strip with inverted colours (white on black) means the item was made with recycled material and can be recycled again, but this is rare

Industry introduced a more nuanced, label system. Items are either:

Flat arrows with a number 1-7 tell you what type of polymer is in the product, not whether it's recyclable.

Globally 15% of plastic waste is recycled, but only 5% of that is turned into a recycled object or material.

We must add more "R" strategies to the toolbox:

  1. Record
  2. Reduce
  3. Replace
  4. Refuse
  5. Reuse
  6. Refill
  7. Rethink
  8. Recycle


Keep a diary of every single piece of plastic that enters your life for 4 weeks (or at least 2). Include plastic both inside and outside the home.

The author provides an example grid containg columns for source, whether it's avoidable, whether it's single-use, where it ends up, whether you wanted it, its features and more.

It's likely that a couple would record between 300-1000 items, much more for larger families.


Telling someone they need to reduce plastic packaging unhelpful, in the same way that just telling someone to stop smoking or eat less to lose weight is.

The plastic diary is similar to a food diary, and those have been shown effective for weight loss.

Food packaging

Supermarkets distribute 800k tonnes of plastic packaging a year.


Some stores now opened in the UK where you can bulk-buy and refill.

Replace things at the right time. Everything has a break-even point where the amount of resources that went into making it are offset by how often it's used. It doesn't make sense to throw away plastic you have that can still be used.

Reuse, refill or recycle empty bottles and containers.

The online plastic-free community can advise further.


The 2015 5p levy on plastic bags should increase our confidence to refuse plastic in other forms.

Some protest groups have unwrapped their shopping in-store to highlight the issue. If you do this: be sure to pay for all the goods, pick up the packaging afterwards, take reusable containers to transfer products into and be aware of e.g. littering laws.


When you buy something involving plastic, consider whether the packaging can be re-used. Clear plastic products are an obvious case that can.

Some brands are getting worse - e.g. the big feminine care brands have switched from cardboard to plastic tampon applicators. Consider switching to reusable menstruation products like the Mooncup.


A report found that 29% of millennials said they don't use refillable water bottles because they are too heavy. A generation before, mandatory deposit schemes for bottles and refillable containers were common. Soft drink manufacturers such as Coca Coal and Pepsi successfully lobbied against them.


We must rethink some of our habits. That includes when outside of our homes or around special occasions.

Look out for hidden plastics: wet wipes, coffee cups, chewing gum, most aluminium cans, teabags.


Unlike the rest of the UK, Wales is a recycling success story. It went from recycling 5% of waste 20 years ago to be on target to achieve 70% by 2025.

Targets and goals are important. Wales established statutory targets and most LAs provided kerbside recycling docks where residents sort they recycling at home into boxes based on type and then put into the relevant dock.

Using one "mixed" recycling bag instead is worse because you end up with lower quality recyclate, which is harder to sell into the global market. The UK's recyclate is dropping in quality.

Higher quality recyclate fetches higher prices and more markets will buy it. Whilst it's more arduous to sort it at home, this should eventually translate into lowered council tax and better public services.

Structural changes

It's worth supporting bigger changes that will reduce plastic usage more than your own personal usage can. We need to be imaginiative.

Be an activist

There is a real chance we can end the plastic age.

Activists were critical to creating this legislation. There are many ways to get involved.

In 2015, the Dutch government was successfully sued by citizens for knowingly contributing towards a breach of the target for global warming. For the first time, a court ordered the state to protect its citizens from climate change.

Consider matching your activism to your personality. The Happy Hero book has a profiling section to help. There are many opportunities to help, from crafting a bag from recycled fabric though to adrenaline filled expeditions.

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