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Can we reverse the tidal wave of plastic pollution?

plastic in oceans

Did you know, 40% of all plastics are used just once before being discarded and rarely recycled? Much of the world has come to rely on plastic as key to its lifestyle. We buy 1 million plastic bottles every minute, representing a significant proportion of the single-use items in circulation.

Plastic pollution is among the biggest environmental battles of our time. We are rapidly approaching a plastic fly-tipping point of no return. As we continue to hear of marine species fatally stranded on beaches, a stomach-full of plastic to blame, we can no longer afford to hide. In Thailand, hundreds of dolphins and whales die each year, while a video of a sea turtle with a straw lodged in its nostril went viral during 2018 and highlighted just how severe the problem is. Thankfully, change is at hand.

We can reverse the rising trend of plastic pollution

A new generation are working to tackle the global plastic waste crisis head on. Businesses and governments are exploring the history of plastics, uncovering why humans have come to rely on this non-biodegradable material and revealing the impact of our growing consumption. Household names such as McDonald’s, SeaWorld, Bon Appétit are among the many US businesses charging towards a plastic-free future by investing in their:

  1. Corporate Social Responsibility - Every business has an obligation to help the planet thrive during this time of crisis.
  2. Waste Minimization Strategy - An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, requiring both businesses and broader populations to act. This can be as simple as food and beverage companies eliminating plastic straws.

The impact of wildlife is now making international businesses around the world stand up with the word-first pact to tackle plastic pollution with over 40 UK companies who contribute as much as 80% of plastic packaging, pledging to achieve the following four world-leading targets by 2025.

  • Innovative actions must be taken to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastics
  • 100% of plastic packaging must be recyclable
  • 70% of plastic packaging must be effectively recycled or composted
  • 30% of plastic packaging must be recycled content

How Did We Reach This Plastic Pandemic?

From a modest start of 2 million tons in the 1950’s, the world now produces over 400 million tons of plastic every year. Half of all the plastic ever manufactured was made in the last thirteen years alone, illustrating the incessant demand for convenience over sustainability.

A major contributor to the growing plastic pollution stems from the lack of robust waste management infrastructure. This is in the developed world as much as in developing nations. While we have been happy to produce and use plastics, insufficient thought was given to how to dispose of the material sustainable.

Did you know, in the US alone, we purchase more than 50 billion bottles each year, recycling just 23% of all those purchased? It's likely we are destroying the planet with our recycling habits. Initiatives such as Americas Recycle Day are doing their best to support the beleaguered recycling sector but more is required.

Plastic takes centuries to break down

We are still finding credit cards dating back to 1959 in landfills in near-perfect condition. Those that degrade, result in microplastics that pollute landscapes and oceans.


Plastic Pollution Is Set to Treble in A Decade

The US plastic recycling rate is due to drop to 4.4% in 2018 with rising costs and China’s ban on accepting America’s waste contributing to the problem.

In the face of rising plastic production and given 90% of single-use plastics make their way into the ocean, this is a worrying signal. The single-use pandemic has spurred policymakers and businesses worldwide to act. Be it through outlawing bags or removing plastic straws, these are small but significant steps to reverse the trend. Governments work to give citizens the tools to reuse and refuse plastic. The key message revolves around prizing sustainability over convenience: rather than accept plastic when offered, question whether we can reuse the item and, if not, refuse it.

Eco-friendly alternatives include a cup for life for use during your commute to work; a reusable drinks bottle to keep you hydrated throughout your workout or workday; or, storing cloth shopping bags near the entrance of your home or in your car.

The Global State of Plastic Pollution

40% of the ocean’s surface already sits beneath plastic wasteland flotillas. Unless we change course, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight by 2050. The biggest cause lies in single-use items such as bottles, straws and grocery bag. These have an average useful lifespan of twelve minutes but survive for hundreds of years.

To date, we have used five trillion plastic bags to transport shopping home just once, before discarding them. It is the single-use behavior which has galvanized policymakers and businesses across the world to act and reverse the trend, be it through outlawing bags or removing plastic straws.

Single-use products destroy fish populations, as illustrated in early 2018 when a sperm whale washed ashore in Europe with 64 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Even if the plastic breaks down, microplastics can permeate freshwater supplies as indicated by a recent survey in America indicating 94% of US tap water contains micro-plastics. They pervade the environment to such an extent that in Australia, The Queensland’s Environment Conservation Group removes 10,000 items a month from their waterways, which mainly includes bottles with no letup in sight.

How Can We Reverse The Situation?

We produce twenty times as much plastic today as we did sixty years ago. On current estimates, experts suggest as much as 12 billion metric tons of plastic will accumulate in landfills by 2050. It appears the world has taken note of the situation with movements attacking the use of single-use plastic popping up on a frequent basis.


Organizations such as The Ocean Cleanup harness technology to remove some of the five trillion pieces of plastic currently littering the oceans. They hope their passive cleaning systems will clear as much as 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage patch within five years via a more efficient, economical method than achievable with boats and nets alone.

The Seabin Project installs floating rubbish bins in ports, harbors and marinas: major sources of ocean litter with the average sea bin collecting up to half-a-ton of debris every year. British company Recycling Technologies have developed an innovative technology that recycles any plastic into a reusable material known as Plaxx to solve the non-recyclable problem. Finally, companies such as Origin Materials focus on the top of the supply chain, aiming to manufacture renewable bottles out of sawdust, cardboard, and other sustainable materials.

Travel and hospitality companies have joined the plastic-free movement. Alaska Airlines became the first US carrier to ditch plastic stir straws on flights, offering marine-friendly recyclable alternatives in place of the 22m stirrers the airline gets through each year. American Airlines has chosen a similar path – replacing plastic straws and stirrers both on flights and in lounges to eliminate upwards of 71,000 pounds of plastic from its operations every year. Delta and United Airlines have also picked up the baton, even replacing non-recyclable cutlery and dishes with compostable products.

Among major hotel chains, Hilton committed to remove plastic straws from all its 650 hotels across the world – alongside taking plastic water bottles out of conference rooms, as the operator hopes to cut its environmental impact in half by 2030.

The Hyatt, Four Seasons, Marriott International, and Nikki Beach hotels have also curbed usage of plastic straws and stirrers. While the Six Senses chain of resorts has taken the movement one step further with its Earth Lab initiative, aiming to create a zero-waste operation and ensure all materials used onsite are either reused; or recycled.

As California lawmakers ramp up the pressure to introduce a state-wide ban on mini toiletries (like shampoo and shower gel bottles) by 2023, hotel operators will have to work even harder in their drive towards sustainability; expect to see bulk soap dispensers dotted across many hotel bathrooms in the very near future.

To move towards an economy which places sustainability top-of-mind, however, will require action at the highest level: the New Plastics Economy report argues for improved infrastructure in how producers both design, then use, plastic. The study calls for a rethink of packaging so that the 30% of plastics which are currently destined for landfill can be given a second life once they have fulfilled their primary purpose.

It also urges an overhaul of the recycling process to make it easier to process waste materials, which would make recycling more economically viable in certain regions; excessive cost often deters nations from scaling recycling efforts.

Five Steps to Reducing Plastic Pollution

By educating yourself around both the problem as well as steps towards a solution, you can have a positive impact on your environment. In an effort to increase understanding of the plastic waste crisis, environmental awareness days take place throughout the year. This includes World Earth Day on April 20, World Environment Day on June 05, World Ocean Day on June 08 and Americas Recycle Day on November 15. Each year, there is a specific focus. During 2017-2018, communities have focused on the ways in which to Beat Plastic Pollution with the media across the world reporting on efforts to reduce plastic pollution. Participants include individuals, local communities, charities, governments, and workplaces such as SMEs and large enterprises.

By educating yourself around both the problem as well as steps towards a solution, you can have a positive impact on your environment. As a starting point, consider the following five tips that enable you to make a positive difference to the plastic pollution problem:

  1. Drop the bottle - The US spends $1.6bn on bottled water each year, spurring plastic production while paying for a mains water supply. By switching habits, businesses could limit spending and also save the equivalent of 17m barrels of oil each year.
  2. Avoid excess packaging - Business rely on marketing communications but these needn’t require lots of additional packaging. Drop the plastic and focus on recyclable papers and cardboard to show your clients you care for the planet.
  3. Provide kitchen facilities - Salad bags, candy bar wrappers and film packaging are often unrecyclable. So, if you force employees to buy lunch, you are part of the problem. Kitchen facilities allow your team to bring food from home in reusable containers for a greener, healthier alternative to a store-bought lunch.
  4. Operate a recycling policy - Offering clearly labelled recycling bins backed up by a company-wide recycling policy means employees can avoid the plastic reaching a landfill.
  5. Seek alternative materials - Even if packaging is core to your product, there are always alternatives. Companies such as Tipa offer biodegradable films that break down after use ensuring your brand doesn’t live on in the wild for centuries.

Seek to resolve the plastic pandemic

The Plastic Pollution Coalition represents a collective of individuals, organizations, businesses and policymakers who have come together to help rid the world of single-use plastics and their website even offers a path towards a plastic-free lifestyle. While plastic-free living may be a pipe dream for most, lower plastic consumption is becoming a reality.