Plastic as we know it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years, but in that time it has transformed everything from clothing, cooking and catering, to product design, engineering and retailing.
One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is that they're designed to last - for a very long time.
And nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today.
Plastic is really useful and we use it every day. But what happens after we throw it away is causing a big problem for our planet. It's thought more than five trillion pieces of plastic are in the world's oceans and it can take years for it to break down.
Plastic is in lots of things we use from clothing to crisp packets, and bottles to buckets. Making things from plastic is popular because there are many different types and it can be made in to all sorts of shapes, colours and sizes. Plastics are man-made and can be produced from natural materials like coal and oil.
The first synthetic plastic - plastic made entirely from man-made materials - was created over 100 years ago. It was called Bakelite and was invented by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland in the early 1900s. Many think Bakelite was the start of plastics as we know them today.
We are living on a plastic planet. What does it mean for our health?
We appear to be drinking and probably eating microplastics all the time without knowing it. Photograph: CBW/Alamy Stock Photo
Sometimes a single revelation opens our eyes to a whole new view of the world. The contamination of tap water around the world with microplastics, exposed on Wednesday in the Guardian, unmasks Earth as a planet pervasively polluted with plastic.
What that means for the seven billion people who live on it, no one yet knows. All the experts can agree on is that, given the warning signs being given by life in the oceans, the need to find out is urgent.
We knew the oceans were awash with plastic. Brightly coloured and often floating, the debris from consumer society formed colossal, ugly swirls in the seas and littered even the remotest beaches from the Arctic to the deep Pacific.
What are the world’s biggest plastic polluters doing about the problem?
Some of the top brands that were found to be polluting the oceans in a beach cleanup activity and brand audit on Freedom Island, Parañaque City, Metro Manila, Philippines in September last year. Image: Greenpeace
From plastic bottles and instant coffee sachets to shampoo and toothpaste packs, lightweight plastics have been clogging drains and polluting public spaces at a rate of one truckload entering the ocean every minute.
In response, this year’s Earth Day is dedicated to mobilising the world to end plastic pollution, by launching a multi-year campaign to curb consumption of single-use plastics.
Earth Day, which is celebrated every year on April 22, marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement, when millions protested against the negative impacts of industrial development in the United States and around the world almost 48 years ago.
How We Can Turn Plastic Waste Into Green Energy
In the adventure classic Back to the Future, Emmett "Doc" Brown uses energy generated from rubbish to power his DeLorean time machine. But while a time machine may still be some way off, the prospect of using rubbish for fuel isn't too far from reality. Plastics, in particular, contain mainly carbon and hydrogen, with similar energy content to conventional fuels such as diesel.
Plastics are among the most valuable waste materials—although with the way people discard them, you probably wouldn't know it. It's possible to convert all plastics directly into useful forms of energy and chemicals for industry, using a process called "cold plasma pyrolysis."
Pyrolysis is a method of heating, which decomposes organic materials at temperatures between 400℃ and 650℃, in an environment with limited oxygen. Pyrolysis is normally used to generate energy in the form of heat, electricity or fuels, but it could be even more beneficial if cold plasma was incorporated into the process, to help recover other chemicals and materials.
Alternatives to Plastic
Although plastic as we know it was introduced less than 100 years ago it has quickly become a staple in our everyday lives – from light switches to cars to computers, plastics are unavoidable. Unfortunately, this explosion in plastic products has been devastating for our environment. Synthetic plastics are not biodegradable, which means that once they’re manufactured they’re going to be with us in our landfills and oceans for hundreds if not thousands of years. There is also a whole laundry list of toxic chemicals that leak into our air, water, and soil from the manufacturing and disposal of plastics. Recycling can help alleviate some of these problems, but the best way to protect the earth from plastics is to replace them with more eco-friendly materials:
- Metal, wood, and glass - One of the best ways to get rid of plastic in your home or business is to choose products made from more traditional materials like metal, wood, or glass that are cleaner to manufacture and easier to dispose of. Glass, along with metals like aluminum and steel, can be recycled indefinitely, meaning they don’t have to end up in landfills, and wood is also easier to reuse and dispose of. These products are usually more expensive, but their durability and green lifecycle make them worth the price. Another thing to keep in mind: when buying wood products try to make sure they are eco-friendly and come from sustainably harvested forests. You can look for labels from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) which certifies that wood products like furniture, paper, and flooring are eco-friendly at every stage of their life from planting to your home. Also try to look for products made from recycled and reclaimed metal and glass.
- Bagasse - Compostable, eco-friendly bagasse is great for replacing plastic when you need disposable plates, cups, or take-out boxes. Bagasse – the pulp left over when juice is extracted from sugarcane or beets – is used for a variety of purposes including as a biofuel. It can also be pressed into a cardboard-like material used to make waterproof food containers, which is a great use for manufacturing waste that would otherwise be thrown away. And because it’s made from plants it will biodegrade easily in a home or industrial compost pile.
- Bioplastics -Sometimes it’s hard to find non-plastic versions of the products you need, so when you have to rely on plastics try to find eco-friendly ones. PLA or CPLA are made from corn instead of petroleum while taterware is a similar material made from potato starch. Both will biodegrade in industrial compost sites, although be cautious when purchasing these products as some are not compostable in home compost bins. Many companies are also now starting to manufacture bottles and packaging using PLA or other plastics made from non-petroleum sources.
The Most Common Eco-Friendly Alternatives for Plastic Packaging
- Glass - Glass is made from sand and not made from fossil fuels unlike plastics. This is a renewable thing that doesn’t have chemicals which can come in contact with your food and body. It can be easily recycled too and can be made into new bottles and reused glass jars for storage.
- Reusable Shopping Bags - Most supermarkets offer plastic bag alternatives today. Some of it have patterns and some reusable packaging are printed with the establishment’s name. These reusable bags come in canvas, cotton, hemp, leather, fiber, and woven plastic. The nylon ones can be folded up into a pouch and small enough to suit in your pocket. The good point about avoiding plastic bags is you don’t have much to accumulate and stock in your cupboards.
- Plastic Additives - While some are preoccupied in making plastic alternatives, there are some who are making conventional biodegradable thermoplastics by using metal compound additives called prodegradant concentrates (PDCs). PDCs undergo oxidation processes that turn plastics into brittle and low-molecular-weight fragments. As fragments disintegrate, they turn into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass that contain no harmful residues. These additives are used to produce single-use plastic packaging like food containers, disposable diapers, landfill covers, thin plastic shopping bags, and trash bags. While the additives are not completely biodegradable, PDC-containing polymers are eco-friendlier than purer polymer that stock in landfills for several years.
5 Alternatives To Plastic Bags That Are Available In The Market
It is expected that this year the world will consume 5 trillion plastic bags – that is about 1 million bags a minute! To put this fact in perspective, if all the plastic bags consumed are stacked up it would cover an area twice the size of France. Plastic bags take a huge toll on our planet. It is non-biodegradable chokes rivers, oceans, clogs drains, causes floods, pollutes land, soil, water and air. So, we give you top 5 environmental friendly products which you can opt in place of plastic bags. So, make the green switch now!
- An Easy Alternative - Canvas Bags: Thicker and stronger alternatives to the plastic bags, canvas bags made of cotton are actually more durable and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In comparison to the conventional cotton bags, these bags are lightweight and cost effective. What’s great is that you can wash them regularly and reuse as many times as you want. And for those who believe in do-it-yourself, you can buy the material and stitch your own canvas bags.
- Eco-Friendly Bags - Made Out Of Natural Starches And Vegetable Wastes: EnviGreen, a Mangalore-based company is providing India alternatives to the conventional plastic bags, zip pouches and cling wraps. What they are doing is simple – they are making look-alikes of plastic bags which on disposal can become food for the animals. The cost of one EnviGreen bag is about 35-40% more than that of a plastic bag, but, is currently the cheapest alternative available in India to plastic bags.
- Trendy And In Vogue - Denim Bags: Everyone knows this for a fact that denims are reliable and durable. A denim bag in comparison to the plastic bag can hold a lot more quantity. These can be easily washed and preserved for a really long time. You can also stitch your own denim bag using an old pair of jeans!
- A Step Closer To Plastic - Free World: Aarohana EcoSocial Developments company started by two IT professionals in Pune is providing trendy alternatives to plastic bags. What’s great is that the duo is upcycling the old plastic bags and converting it into new stylish fashionable bags. Today, around 200,000 typical small grocery plastic bags have been upcycled by the duo. Choose this alternative product in place of your conventional plastic bag and prevent adding to the growing pile of plastics.
- Plain And Simple - Jute Bags: Another alternative to plastic is the good old – Jute bag. They are stronger, more durable and are bio-degradable. These inexpensive bags can degrade biologically in two years.
Bring your groceries home in style
Plastic bags are a fundamental part of our shopping routine. Did you know that a persons use of a plastic bag can be counted in minutes - however long it takes to get from the shop to home. We can all avoid using plastic bags, its easy - simply by using a reusable bag:
- What are reusable bags? - Reuseable bags are bags that are durable and long lasting. They come in all different shapes, sizes, colours, and styles. Reuseable cloth bags are a popular alternative to plastic bags. They are made from a variety of materials, such as calico, cotton, recycled PET, hemp and jute.
- Where can I purchase a reusable bag? - New Zealands major supermarket chains stock and encourage shoppers to purchase and use their branded reusable bags. Some NZ retail outlets offer their own branded cloth bags to customers instead of plastic bags.
- What are biodegradable plastic bags? - Advances in science and technology have resulted in the development of bio-plastics. Bio-plastics or organic plastics are a form of plastic derived from renewable organic sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch and pea starch.
- Compostable plastics - these products break down in a compost bin over a period of 2-3 months.
- Biodegradable plastics - these plastics break down in a landfill over 2-3 years (normal plastic bags take 1,000 years to break down in landfill).
- Degradable plastics - these plastics break down after a certain period of time exposed to UV (sunlight), heat and moisture.
10 Ways to Use Less Plastic Every Day
- Avoid buying items packaged in plastic - Look for produce and other items that aren't over-packaged. Buy food in glass jars rather than plastic ones, and detergents in boxes rather than bottles. Not only are you reducing the plastic you use, you're sending a powerful message to the makers of those products that you don't like plastic packaging. Using cloth shopping bags is one simple way to lessen your use of plastics.
- Use cloth shopping bags - Plastic bags are an eyesore and are dangerous to wildlife. Keep reusable bags somewhere handy—in your car or your bike or by the front door—so you don't forget them when you go to the market, grocery store or mall.
- Skip bottled water - Carry a reusable canteen. Plastic bottles are one of the top five most common types of litter found on beaches. Since bottled water is much more expensive than tap water, you'll also save money doing this, and avoid the possible hazards of plastic toxins leaching into your beverage.
- Upcycle - Think of new uses for old items rather than discarding them or buying new ones.
- Bring a reusable mug when you order coffee - Stow it on your desk, in your purse, car or bag so you have it on hand when you order or refill your drink.
- Say "No straw, please" - Straws are one of the top 10 items found on beaches. In most cases, drinking out of a straw is simply unnecessary. If you do need a straw, you can get a reusable stainless steel or glass one.
- Wear clothing made from natural (not synthetic) materials - Wearing and washing clothes causes fibers to flake off, and polyester clothing is made of plastic. Tiny particles of microplastic found in oceans around the world have been traced to such synthetic fabrics.
- Avoid disposable tableware, or use the compostable kind - Try using washable and reusable cups, plates or utensils. When using compostable tableware, be aware they will not biodegrade in a landfill and must be disposed of in appropriate composting conditions.
- Don't just discard electronics - Aim to repair or upgrade your devices instead of buying new ones. Sell gadgets and computer parts, or find a facility where you can turn them in for recycling.
- Bring your own container for takeout and leftovers - When ordering takeout or bringing home leftovers, ask if you can get the food in your own reusable container.
ECO-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVES FOR DISPOSABLE PLASTIC WATER BOTTLES
Plastic is an easy go-to for transporting anything from lunches to water to other drinks. However, as convenient and user-friendly as it may be, there are those who are looking for alternatives that may be even greener and eco-friendly. While plastic is recyclable, there have been concerns about the footprint it leaves behind on a grander scale. Today, there are an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in the ocean and what is not recycled takes over 1000 years to decompose. This makes a good case for expanding water bottle material options and looking into alternatives that may be friendlier:
- Glass - While this is a fragile material, glass is uncompromising, keeps drinks tasting great, maintains its original integrity and stays colder longer out of the refrigerator than plastic. It is also infinitely recyclable and maintains its quality through every time it is remade.
- Ceramic - While not new, by any means, ceramic is not as prevalent in the market place either. This is an age-old, eco-friendly style of bottle that behaves similarly to glass with its sturdiness and the ability to keep colder longer. Ceramic containers, however, are even heavier than glass to carry around as well as being fragile, but with new developments in technology, they aren’t as unwieldy as before and often have wraps that reinforce them so they don’t shatter.
- Stainless Steel - Newer stainless steel bottles are lined so that there is no metal taste and this keeps water and all other drinks cold even longer than glass. Metal is a natural temperature conductor, so if it takes on something cold, it will keep it cold, and if its contents are hot, they will stay hot.
- Plant Based-Plastics - Some plant-based bottles themselves are edible as well as biodegradable. While no one may want to actually eat them, it’s good to know that they are safe, don’t impart the same chemicals as other bottles might, and are a new, effective product on the market.
- Boxed Water (or Paper Bottles) - This new trend with beverages available in boxes (like wine tetra packs or paper coconut water bottles) has created a unique market. The share it occupies is small right now, but as these grow in popularity there may be more and more on the shelves. Because they are paper, however, they have a limited lifespan – but are 100% recyclable.
- Reusable bottles - Other than the paper products, all of the above containers are reusable, plastic included. The most economical and green way to transport drinking water for personal use is in reusable bottles. Getting ones that are sturdy and easy to clean is the most economical solution.
7 Reasons To Never Drink Bottled Water Again
As a water-lover and expert on global water ethics, I see H2O everywhere: waterfalls and lakes, drought and flood, sparkling, still, bottled, tap, from a well, in the surf, behind a dam, in plastic, in glass, from the cooler at yoga class, with or without ice. How we drink our water shows us what kind of society we are. I want my body and my society to reflect sustainable values, so I only drink disposable, plastic bottled water if there is absolutely no alternative. If I were in a truly extreme situation—say, a cholera epidemic, an area without reliable water supply, or a desert, for example—then I would drink bottled water. Happily, most of us are not in those situations. And wonderful alternatives are easily available. Sound extreme? It’s not, when you consider these 7 truths about bottled water. Read on, and become a healthier person, a smarter consumer, and a global citizen:
- Plastic bottles are not sustainable, no matter what we've been told - Using vast quantities of fossil fuels and water, these bottles are manufactured, filled, and shipped around the globe. (Not a good carbon footprint!) Neither are bottles biodegradable in any meaningful way: what you drink in a few minutes can stick around for a thousand years. Even with recycling efforts, 6 out of 7 plastic bottles consumed in the U.S. are “downcycled”—sent somewhere out of sight and out of mind where, for the next millennia, toxins from degrading plastic containers can leach into watersheds and soil. That’s just not something we need to give to global neighbors and future generations.
- Some bottled water is glorified tap water at 10,000 times the cost - The label on your bottled water may depict a peaceful mountain stream, but that doesn't mean the water inside is pure and pristine. Only some bottled water comes from springs or groundwater sources. It turns out that approximately 25% of bottled water is sourced from ... the tap. Sure, some companies filter or radiate the tap water with ultraviolet light before selling it to you at several thousand times the cost of municipal tap water. (Examples include Aquafina, Dasani, and many other brands.). Moreover, studies show that bottled water samples can contain phthalates, mold, microbes, benzene, trihalomethanes, even arsenic. And only recently did the FDA start regulating bottled water for E. Coli, thanks to advocacy by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Upshot: bottled water markup is extreme. Health standards are often a wash and may even favor tap water. (If you’re concerned about municipal water supply and want to know more, check out this helpful resource, which can help you learn about your municipal water supply and decide if filtration or purification is right for you.)
- Many bottled waters contain toxins, even if they've nixed BPA - Plastic isn't just bad for the planet (see #1). It’s not good for you, either. Bottled water companies increasingly use BPA-free plastic, but laced into plastic bottles are other chemicals that can seep out if bottles are exposed to heat or sit around for a long time. Some of these chemicals are possible endocrine disruptors. No one knows for sure what the health outcomes are. Do you really want your body to undergo that experiment?
- Fashion, foodies, and sustainable cities are taking back the tap - New York City’s Fashion Week, Chez Panisse, the city of San Francisco and Grand Canyon National Park have all reduced or eliminated bottled water! AVEDA teamed up with New York’s Department of Environmental Protection during Fashion Week 2010 to provide free drinking fountains on the streets of New York.
- Local water is the new complement to local, organic food - Local food is everywhere these days: CSAs, farmers markets, farm-to-table dining. That local food is grown and cooked with … local water! It’s the invisible part of the sustainable, healthy food you eat. So, locavores, it’s time to get your hydrophilia on and appreciate your water supply just as much as you do your CSA. Shouldn’t we care for and support our water sources like we support healthy, organic, local farms?
- There ARE gorgeous alternatives for on-the-go hydrophiles - Choose a durable, re-useable water bottle (BPA-free or, even better, stainless steel) in whatever size or shape and design you like. I think of it as an accessory: at my most recent job interview, a team member commented on my green, reusable water bottle. (I got the job.) For home, try the new, limited edition Soma water carafe and filter. It’s a sleek, glass carafe with the first-ever fully biodegradable filter (made from coconut shells—stupendously cool), with a new filter sent automatically every 60 days. As a working professional and parent with an eye for design, I love this. For those who want an in-sink filtration system, check out this helpful resource from Food & Water Watch. And for sparkling water addicts (like myself), I highly recommend Soda Stream.
- Change is simple and makes a real difference - When you ditch disposable bottled water, you save money, live healthier, and join a movement for global sustainability. Plus, it’s easy. And you’ll save money. Yes, you’ll need to take that first step of buying your re-usable bottle, and then remember it when you jog out the door. But if “keys, wallet, yoga mat” are on your mental checklist anyway, what’s one more item that saves you money and protects the planet? If after six months, you still crave water from Fiji, then I suggest the following: take the money you’ve saved by sipping strategically. Treat yourself to a vacation in, well, Fiji—where you can hydrate, surf, relax, and celebrate the fact that you are an awesome part of the solution!
As workaholics who have too much to do and too little knowledge in the way of time management, most of the RICE team eats a sad desk lunch at least once a week. When we do, we dabao from the nearest hawker centre. We don’t bring our own containers or tumblers, so a standard lunch usually includes one plastic takeaway container or styrofoam box, one plastic bag or cup for a drink, a plastic straw, and at least two plastic utensils.
Occasionally, we even end up with a number of small plastic containers containing sauces, or an additional plastic bag with snacks for the afternoon. On top of this, there is at least one larger plastic bag to carry our food back to the office.
Essentially, one person can use about eight plastic items in just one afternoon. The number may be a rough gauge, but the statistic was enough to shock me into formulating an experiment to highlight our apathy towards plastic use. In order to track and minimise our individual plastic use, I got everyone to note all the plastic items they used in a week, including those outside office hours.
WE MADE PLASTIC. WE DEPEND ON IT. NOW WE’RE DROWNING IN IT
After sheets of clear plastic trash have been washed in the Buriganga River, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Noorjahan spreads them out to dry, turning them regularly— while also tending to her son, Momo. The plastic will eventually be sold to a recycler. Less than a fifth of all plastic gets recycled globally. In the U.S. it’s less than 10 percent.
If plastic had been invented when the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England, to North America—and the Mayflower had been stocked with bottled water and plastic-wrapped snacks—their plastic trash would likely still be around, four centuries later. If the Pilgrims had been like many people today and simply tossed their empty bottles and wrappers over the side, Atlantic waves and sunlight would have worn all that plastic into tiny bits. And those bits might still be floating around the world’s oceans today, sponging up toxins to add to the ones already in them, waiting to be eaten by some hapless fish or oyster, and ultimately perhaps by one of us.
We should give thanks that the Pilgrims didn’t have plastic, I thought recently as I rode a train to Plymouth along England’s south coast. I was on my way to see a man who would help me make sense of the whole mess we’ve made with plastic, especially in the ocean.
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