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Reducing The Environmental Impact Of Waste Plastic

Following my recent Keen For Green article about the efforts being made in Europe to cut down on energy consumption, I thought for my next article it would be interesting to look at the issue of recycling – and specifically, the recycling of plastic. This is a huge issue because here in the UK it has been estimated that five million tonnes of plastic are consumed each year – with 4.5 million tonnes entering the waste stream annually.

In early March the European Commission launched a Green Paper on plastics, looking at plastics disposal and recycling across the whole of the European Union. It discussed the fact that approximately half of all plastic ends up in landfill – which in terms of energy is the equivalent of 12 million tonnes of crude oil being buried each year.

The paper also drew attention to the big problem of single-use plastic carrier bags – in just one year in the UK, 2010, it was estimated that 200 plastic bags were used per person. This has led to radical proposals, including a total ban on plastic bags across the whole of Europe. Italy has in fact already implemented such a policy, having banned non-biodegradable plastic bags on 1st January 2011.

Other European countries have approached the problem of waste plastic bags by financially disincentivising consumers from using them. Bulgaria, Denmark and Ireland have introduced a tax on plastic bags, which in Ireland has seen a reduction in their usage of 90%. Such a dramatic fall has also been observed in the UK, when retailers start charging for bags. Marks & Spencer was the first major high street retailer to charge customers, leading to a drop of 80% in the use of plastic bags.

Reducing our use of non-biodegradable plastics is incredibly important because our environment is being massively polluted by such waste. A recent documentary narrated by the actor Jeremy Irons, Trashed, drew attention to the global issue of plastic pollution. Travelling around the world, Irons saw for himself the various landscapes that have been polluted by plastic waste – including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast concentration of marine debris in the Pacific Ocean.

The problem is not just one of aesthetics but of health, as plastic waste has a serious impact on marine life, and then on human health. Chlorinated dioxins are attracted to the waste plastic fragments in the sea, which are then eaten and absorbed by fish – chemicals ingested by humans when they eat the contaminated fish.

Disposal of plastic waste through burial and incineration is also environmentally destructive because of the emission of greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide. Such gases accelerate global warming and contribute to the melting of the ice caps - in turn releasing more toxins into the sea, which have been stored over decades in the ice.

We now use about 20 times more plastic than 50 years ago, and so it is very important that we make a big effort to reuse and recycle our waste plastic. In the United Kingdom it is relatively easy to recycle certain kinds of plastic as 92% of all local authorities collect plastic bottles for recycling, either through recycling centres or roadside collections. Plastic bottles are generally made from PET and HDPE, which are two of the most easily recyclable plastics.

Unfortunately some plastic, such as that used to make margarine tubs and yoghurt pots, is more difficult to recycle efficiently and the UK does not yet have adequate technology to do so. In the UK huge investments are currently being made into plastics recycling technology, however, so hopefully in the near future far less will have to be sent to landfill, incinerated, or shipped abroad for recycling.

About the author: Brit Peacock is an environmental blogger currently writing on green issues for eco-packaging manufacturer Rajapack.