How sustainable is plastic?

May 11, 2018

Take a look around you. How much plastic do you see? Think about when you go food shopping, how many items do you buy that are packaged in plastic? We live in a place whereby it’s almost second nature to use plastic for practically everything, we do it without questioning. But, just how sustainable is plastic? And what are the consequences of using it religiously?

As stated by the British Plastics Federation (BPF), to class an item or material as sustainable, it is crucial that it is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable - these three combined are known as The Three Pillars of Sustainability. For those who don’t have a strong grasp on sustainability, the simple definition of it is as follows: sustainability is the ability of resources to be maintained at a certain rate or level, or the avoidance of depletion of natural resources to keep the ecological balance. 

According to The Guardian, only 14 percent of plastics are actually recycled. So where is the remaining 86 percent? Chances are, they’re lying within our oceans, as 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean on a yearly basis, with a large majority of it being packaging. The repercussions here are obvious - the sea creatures are affected, high chances that they will consume the rubbish or become tangled within it, the plastic mixes with toxic industrial chemicals which previously polluted the oceans and then, there’s the potential of these chemicals entering our food chains. Are you worried yet? If your answer is no, then, why? 

Recycling bins at Largs train station, Ayrshire.

These high plastic levels being found in the oceans have a serious impact upon our sea life. The Independent researched into plastic in the oceans and found that there are 500 times more pieces of microplastic in our oceans than there are stars in the galaxy - to put it into perspective, there are between 150-200 billion stars. Multiple that by 500 and you’re sure to get a hefty number. With this worrying figure, it is estimated that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than there will be fish. This is all our fault, because we are simply ruining the sea creatures’ habitats, which as a result, their numbers decrease and the biodiversity we have also declines. In turn, it will affect humans too because we rely heavily on fish as a source of protein - according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, in 2015, we caught a whopping 92.6 million tonnes of sea food. Fish are already under a threat because of plastic, so with the plastic being a massive issue and us humans catching vast figures yearly, we’re going to see a radical drop in fish figures as their population decreases.

Why should we worry about sea pollution and plastic? 1. It affects our sea life and 2. It has the potential to affect us in the future too. Certain plastics are toxic, as they have the ability to release hormones. Even plastics which don’t contain these hormones are branded as dangerous, because they act in a similar manner as a “magnet”, as it attracts animals towards them. For example, a plastic bag within the sea can look like a jellyfish to a turtle, or floating on the surface, it can look like a snack or food of some form to a seagull. Plastics can degrade into tiny pieces which then pass through the stomach into the flesh of fish and other animals, and as we eat sea fish, it means we’re consuming the plastic, so will end up passing into our bodies’ tissues too. And if they’re toxic or contain chemicals, then our health will be at risk. 

Has there been any action taken? Yes, but we need to promote campaigns more to spread awareness. In February 2017, the United Nations (UN) “declared war on ocean plastic”, and set up a campaign called CleanSeas, whereby their aim is to engage the Governments, public, civil society and private section to fight against litter in our oceans. So far, 30 countries have joined this campaign, including the UK, France, Canada and Norway. It excluded USA, Japan and China who haven’t joined (yet..). Over a time frame of 5 years, they wish to address the root cause of ocean litter, and to do so, will target the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastics. It will require a mass engagement, however, if the engagement is high and participants are active within, they will be able to identify the problem in their own lives and beyond. It’s a campaign which involves a lot of action, but with the right people involved, change will happen.

One of the two main UK Government policies introduced includes banning microplastics in cosmetics. The main category targeted was “rinse off” items which includes exfoliating scrubs, toothpaste and shower gels. Evidence gathered that the tiny particles within the microplastics are damaging sea life, but also propose harm to human health. Greenpeace have said this action has been “the strongest ban on microbeads till this date in the world”, making it so significant. If the ban was to incorporate “leave on” items, which would include makeup and sun cream, manufacturers said that they would need to re-formulate around 90 percent of the products, and that it would be too difficult and costly. However, banning “rinse off” items is definitely a good place to start.

The second main policy introduced was the 5p bag charge. It was introduced in Wales in 2011, 2013 in Northern Ireland, 2014 in Scotland and 2015 in England. Because of its success in Wales, it was eventually phased out across the nation. In Scotland, it was introduced on 20th October 2014, and by law, all retailers had to charge 5p for every single-use plastic bag. The law applies to bags which are made of paper, plastic and some plant-based materials. The aim was to try and encourage bag reusing and recycling, and eradicate litter levels within the country. In October 2015, the BBC found out that in the first year of the law in Scotland alone, the number of bags handed out in store had dropped by a massive 80 percent, which is the equivalent of 650 million bags. Previously before the law was introduced, Scotland was the highest in the UK for single-use plastic bags used, as there were almost 800 million on a yearly basis used. With saving 650 million bags, there’s a net saving of over 4000 tonnes of plastic and other materials annually. Looking at all these statistics, it is clear that this policy has proven to be highly successful.

We may have declined in our bag usage, but for other plastics, rates are dangerous. Why not try a plastic free lifestyle? Reduce the amount of plastic you buy and use. Even bars and restaurants are using paper straws as opposed to plastic straws because of their knock-on effect on sea life, with one of the UK’s biggest names, Wetherspoons, opting to provide paper straws over plastic straws. These small, simple changes might not seem like much, but over a long time period and a lot of people participating, perhaps we could save our sea life before it’s too late.

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  1. Would be great if everyone made small changes to help protect the sealife. Great post! xx

    1. Exactly, small changes are more significant than people realise! Thank you x