We uncover the Dirty Dozen fuelling the plastic pollution crisis and filling the ocean with their single-use packaging.
A plastic planet
When it comes to plastic, the word pollution doesn’t really cut it. The build-up of plastics in the ocean is poisonous on a mind-blowing scale. But why?
Plastic waste flows everywhere and stays there. It’s found washed up in rockpools and in the deepest, most (seemingly) pristine parts of the ocean.
It’s one of the greatest threats to ocean recovery, from turtles tangled in packaging and ghost fishing gear, to microplastics ingested by birds.
How is plastic pollution destroying the ocean?
Its estimated that over 12 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean every single year. Countless fish, birds, turtle, wales and marine creatures are killed each year by mistaking plastics for food or getting entangled in discarded fishing gear across the world.
Plastics don’t disappear over time. Instead the break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These tiny plastics enter the ocean food chain and have been found inside humans, with as yet unknown effects on our health.
Plastic production is also increasing oil extraction, even as demand falls from transport and energy. Over 90% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels – an industry still subsidised by the UK Government.
From its production to its slow breakdown in the ocean, plastic-related emissions hit the equivalent of 1.0 gigatonnes of CO2 in 2016, and could rise to 2.1 gigatonnes by 2040 – that’s 19% of the world’s emissions if we limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
What’s causing plastic pollution?
Plastic is used for anything and everything. A single-use drinks bottle. A snack wrapper in a lunchbox. Packaging for the pasta destined for the dinner plate. It’s a direct product of our disposable and throwaway consumer economy.
Corporate culprits rely on it, and governments have failed to adequately address the problem simply focusing on recycling and waste rather than reduction, reuse and refill.
76% of the 8,300 million tonnes of plastic produced between the 1920s and 2015 became waste. Back then only 9% was recycled. And while recycling rates have increased, we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic problem.
The focus on recycling plastic at the end of its life, rather than reducing consumption, hasn’t stemmed the flow. In reality, only a fraction of the plastic in circulation in the UK can be recycled here. Instead it’s shipped to other countries to dispose of, becoming yet another source of ocean pollution.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics are no panacea either. They’re still single use. They require energy and chemicals to produce, with associated emissions. Most will only break down in industrial composters being mistaken for food by marine life as they do. And they take years to decompose in the ocean.
We need to reduce, reuse and repair.