Our First Blog! Reminding ourselves - why go Plastic Free?
Wooh, welcome to the first of many Glasgow Over Plastics blogs! We are a youth-led community interest organisation leading a plastic-free movement in our great city of Glasgow. A year after David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 was on our TV screens every Sunday night, the awareness of marine plastic pollution has boomed. In the past year, we have seen plastic straw bans, the demand for reusable coffee cups soar, individuals undertaking beach cleans at their leisure and introductions of Plastic Bottle Deposit Schemes.
But still, supermarkets are lined with plastic-packaged produce; tiny plastic fibres seep into our water supplies every time we wash our clothes; plastic fishing gear is lost to the environment daily; industrial plastic pellets are spilled from lorries; and single-use plastic is still the societal norm. Clearly, we still have a long, long way to go.
But we are optimistic! With some creative thinking and a passion to improve the state of the seas, we believe that individuals and businesses can make a real difference by making small, easy changes to their daily habits.
Why go plastic free?
But it is good to regularly remind ourselves (especially as we approach the most wonderful, yet most consuming time of the year), why go plastic free?
The short answer
To reduce the input of plastic into our seas and oceans, where it is accumulating at a rapid rate and causing potentially irreversible damage to ecosystems and wildlife to an extent where human health worldwide is also at risk.
The long answer *Science warning!*
The long answer is a bit more scientific. We have no idea how much plastic is in our oceans. The first scientific report of plastic in our oceans was in 1972 by two scientists, Carpenter and Smith. They took water surface samples of the Sargasso Sea and estimated that there was 3,500 plastic items per km2 of surface seawater. At the time, they were not aware of the devastating impacts of plastic on marine life - the predicted (correctly) that plastic would provide a growth surface for microorganisms. They also predicted that if we did not make rapid changes in our plastic disposal rate, the consequences on our marine life would be extreme (again, and unfortunately, correct). Despite these alarming warnings, plastic pollution didn’t become a popular area of study until the 2000’s. However, now we are far more aware of the impacts of plastic on our environment.
In the natural environment, plastic behaves in 3 ways:
The physical behaviours of plastics, is the way that plastic interacts with the physical environment and moves around, for example, with tides, waves, shape of the land etc. This is important to understand because it helps scientists identify ‘plastic hotspots’. Plastic often finds its way to the ocean via sewage works, natural waterways, poor waste management and just simple littering on streets!
The chemical behaviours are the way in which the chemical structure of the plastic changes over time within the natural environment. Plastics are completely synthetic materials - they cannot be found to be naturally occuring (did you know that the raw materials used to make plastics come from oil and that worldwide, plastics account for 8% of oil extraction). Therefore, there are no microorganisms that have evolved to break-down plastics (biodegradation).
Large pieces of plastic may breakdown into smaller pieces of plastic - but this may have no effect on the chemical structure. Macro-plastics break down into micro-plastics (which are potentially more damaging!). There is some dispute among scientists regarding the category size of microplastics - some argue that anything smaller than 5mm should be considered a microplastic; but others argue that this should be reduced to a microscopic scale of 0.02mm (tiny!).
We have no idea how long it will take for most plastics to totally disappear (total breakdown of the chemical structure) from our natural environment. It is possible that all plastics ever made, are still, in some form, in existence today.
Also, the chemical structure of plastics may react with other chemicals in the water. That means, other nasty pollutants (such as, Persistent Organic Pollutants) can attach themselves to the plastic and be carried around.
The biological behaviours of plastic are potentially the most concerning of the 3 behaviours. These are the ways in which plastics interact with living organisms.
The biggest concern is accidental ingestion. In 2015, a study stated that 690 species had been known to have ingested plastic - this is probably the most up-to-date figure, but it is likely that this figure has increased since. Animals big and small have consumed plastic - from the largest whales to the tiniest plankton! Animals can’t digest plastic - so either, it blocks their gastro-system causing them to be starved of vital nutrients, or can cause tears in the walls of the throat, stomach or intestines.
Tiny microplastics are readily available to the smaller organisms at the bottom of the food chain - the food chain that we are at the top of! And when an organism ingests the plastic, they also ingest and absorb the nasty chemicals that have bound to the plastic surface and the chemicals within the plastic. These chemicals can bioaccumulate (get stronger) as it moves up the food chain, causing more serious health effects. It is thought that these chemicals can interfere with hormones and genetics in organisms, including humans. And it is likely, that the humans that will be faced with the associated health risks are those already suffering from poverty, natural disasters and violence.
Animals can also become injured by plastic items - for example, naturally curious seals who like to play with anything they find, but unfortunately become wrapped in rope or a turtle who becomes impaled by a plastic drinking straw.
Cutting plastic from our lives
Marine wildlife is already under great pressures and stress - warming seas, depleting fish stocks, invasive species, chemical pollutants etc. Plastic consumption is something that individuals have the power to fight against, simply by refusing to consume it - it’s a ‘supply and demand’ situation. If we reduce the demand - we reduce the supply!
Unfortunately, it may be that there are plastics that are difficult to avoid, particular in the medical sector. But with some creative thinking (often simple), it isn’t impossible to avoid plastic. For example, choosing reusables over single-use, is always a win for the fight against plastic pollution!
“Zero-waste” is a term that is thrown around very regularly, particularly amongst environmental bloggers and social media influencers. While this is the end goal, it may seem overwhelming and too difficult. But by taking it a day at a time, and making conscious, goal-oriented decisions, we can win this fight against plastic.
So as it gets closer to Christmas, think about your plastic consumption and ways in which you might reduce it. Our website and social media is full of ideas and tips on how individuals can cut their plastic consumption in their daily lives.
It’s the most wonderful (wasteful) time of the year. So please, remember the reasons why we should be cutting plastic when you’re out doing your christmas shopping.
Thank you for taking the time to read our first blog! We will be posting monthly blogs from each of our team members - each of whom will provide different perspectives and thoughts along the way. I hope that you have found this interesting and that it has motivated you (and hopefully not depressed!) to help us fight the war on plastic.
Also, remember that we are always looking for people to get involved! We will soon be posting a list of volunteer opportunities and ways to get involved but if this is something that interests you, please get in touch! Check out our ‘Get involved’ section on our website.