Plastics are versatile materials that can be put to many different uses.  The convenience of easily-cleaned, smooth surfaces, their waterproof properties and the benefit of advanced medical equipment have made many lives easier and healthier.  Problems have arisen though because plastics are not properly managed; plastics are cheap and easy to make but many are designed to last hundreds of years, and some or many societies have become more wasteful.

One problem with plastics is when they are left in the environment: small creatures may be able to get inside but not out again.  Some sea birds are known to feed pieces of plastic to their young.  In the sea, plankton grows on the surface of the plastic, making it smell like food.  Some large sea creatures have been found to have huge volumes of soft plastics in their stomachs after they have died – possibly from starvation or malnutrition caused by the inability to process food due to the rubbish in their gut.

Other plastics problems are caused by incorrect disposal.  When plastics are dumped this can lead to leaching (leaking) of chemicals into the environment including drinking water.  [Radio 4’s Costing the Earth talks about this.]  The website Our World in Data says that 23% of plastic waste worldwide is mismanaged. This includes plastic that is not recycled, incinerated or put in sealed landfills.  Leaching of toxins into the environment includes land, water and also into the air, especially if burned.

Microplastics are either specifically made to go into a product, or form when plastic items break or degrade.  Thay can be any size half a centimetre or less.  Sources of microplastics include washing synthetic clothes, tyres wearing down, paints, and plastic articles left in the environment breaking down.  There can also be problems caused to health or the environment by the chemicals added to plastics such as dyes or plasticisers.  It is estimated that a plastic bag takes 20 years to break down in the sea, and a plastic bottle may take up to 450 years!  Although there is little research yet into the effects of microplastics on humans, some researchers think microplastics are harmful when ingested or inhaled.

An article by Yongjin Lee, Jaelim Cho, Jungwoo Sohn, and Changsoo Kim in Yonsei Medical Journal in May 2023 refers to research in South Korea which found microplastic buildup in the bodies of marine and aquatic organisms leading to malnutrition, inflammation, reduced fertility, and mortality.  A study also found that accumulation of microplastics in zooplankton can affect the overall marine ecosystem.

How to reduce our use of plastics

Ideas from Sheffield Action on Plastic:

  • Switch to plastic-free tea bags or loose tea
  • In your dishwasher or washing machine, use powder or plastic-free tablets instead of plastic-wrapped ones
  • Use paper tape instead of plastic sticky tape

Ideas from Everyday Plastic:

  • Re-use bread and cereal bags as sandwich or freezer bags
  • Put a plate over leftover food in the fridge (rather than cling film)
  • Make your own ice lollies in reusable freezer moulds

Ideas from Less Plastic:

  • Carry a reusable water bottle or a travel cup for hot drinks
  • Leave your reusable shopping bags by the front door or in your day-bag so you don’t forget them

Other ideas:

  • Veg box schemes: fruit and vegetables not wrapped in plasticss are delivered in one container, which is often returned and reused. Local schemes include Beanies and Regather.  These two schemes never use air freight; they stick to seasonal products.
  • Refill/Zero Waste shops – these sell all sorts of food, cleaning and hygiene products.

But it’s complicated

Whenever we replace a plastic product rather than just not using it at all, we should consider the lifecycle and environmental impact of the alternative product.  For example, data published by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency in 2018 called ‘Environmental Impacts of Different Types of Grocery Bags‘ compares the number of times different kinds of bags would need to be used to have the same impact as a ‘single use’ plastic bag:

One example: when comparing ‘average across all indicators’ for a ‘single use’ plastic bag and an organic cotton bag used twice a week for shopping, you’d need to use the cotton bag for nearly 24 years!  So if you need an extra bag and are likely to use it just a handful of times, a ‘single use’ plastic bag is actually a reasonable option, especially if you will use it as many times as possible till the end of its life – and maybe a final use as a bin bag!  But the bags aren’t really equivalent – the cotton bag is probably stronger, and can have many different uses.  At the end of its life the cotton bag should decompose easily, whereas some of the 2375 plastic bags may not have been recycled or correctly disposed of, but may be polluting the environment and causing harm.  This environmental impact does not take into account the effects of littering.

Managing plastic waste

We should manage our waste correctly, especially plastic waste, because we know the harmful impacts on the environment and humans.

Check your own council website to see what plastics can currently be recycled in your area, both via wheelie bin and recycling sites.  If you live in Sheffield, the only plastics you can currently recycle in your brown bin are empty, clean plastic bottles with tops on.  Items such as tubs, pots and food trays can be taken to a local recycling site.  See the Veolia Sheffield website for more details.

When plastics have their benefits

Plastics can often be the best material for the job!  But we should still be trying to minimise our usage so that there is less produced – meaning less energy is used, and less CO2 produced by the extraction, production and transportation processes. We should also minimise the potential for plastics to pollute as we dispose of them.

Let’s Reduce the amount of plastic we use (especially single use plastic), Reuse products and plastic based materials untill they can no longer be used, and Recycle what we can, disposing of other plastics correctly so they don’t get into the environment.


Elizabeth MacPhail, February 2024
with thanks to my family and Ruth Aidley for their help.

[Featured image credit: Brian Yurasits / Unsplash]