The Truth Behind the Plastic Waste Problem

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Plastic is a foundational pillar of modern society. It became readily available in the 1950s and has been highly sought after ever since by nearly every industry in the world because it allows companies to make products that are extremely durable and significantly cheaper to both manufacturers and customers. We use plastic to produce everything from children’s toys to life-saving medical equipment.

However, plastic’s durability would create a significant problem and one that wasn’t realised until decades after its invention.

Plastic takes around 400 years to degrade, and incineration releases toxic fumes and greenhouse gases.

It’s estimated that since the 1950s, humanity has created nearly 6.2 billion tons of plastic waste, almost all of which will never biodegrade.

In 2019, 368 million metric tons of plastic were produced worldwide. That number is set to double by 2034. Around 50% of that plastic is single-use, and as little as 9% of it is ever recycled.

Clearly, the problem is not plastic itself, but how we approach end-of-life, recycling, and safe disposal practices. In this article, we’ll be looking at the scale of the problem, especially in the UK, and what is being done to address plastic pollution.

 

The Plastic Waste Issue in the UK

Households across the UK generate around 26 million tonnes of waste annually. About 12 million tonnes are recycled while 14-million tonnes are sent to landfill sites.

Nearly all local authorities provide post-consumer plastics recycling collection. Overall, the UK’s commitment to plastic recycling has grown, year on year, for the last twenty-five years.

As a former member of the European Union, the UK ranked 3rd globally for plastic waste recycling, below India and South Korea. Within the European Union, the UK ranked 10th out of the 27 member states in plastic packaging recycling rates.

Plastic waste

Only 33% of plastic pots, tubs and trays are collected for recycling.

UK Plastic Recycling Efforts

When plastic is recycled, each type of plastic is separated, cleaned, and melted down into pellets that are then sold to make new products. Some plastic may also be chemically recycled, which is where the chemical properties are changed to form a new product. Unfortunately, plastic can’t be recycled indefinitely.

What happens when you put plastic waste out for collection in the UK depends largely on your local council. Each council operates its own recycling program.

What waste each council collects is primarily based on the cost at which they can sell the collected material and what specific plastics can be recycled at local recycling facilities.

For example, 100% of local authorities in the UK collect plastic bottles, while only 33% of plastic pots, tubs and trays are collected for recycling.

There is, however, one constant through the UK’s plastic waste recycling efforts. Most of our plastic waste is shipped overseas, rather than being recycled here.

Exporting plastic waste

Under the new rules, the UK can continue to ship plastic waste to developing countries.

How Much of the UK’s Rubbish Is Sent Overseas?

Due to a lack of investment in recycling infrastructure in the UK, around 75 per cent of all plastic waste produced in the UK is sent overseas. This amounts to approximately 611,000 tonnes of plastic packaging each year.

Initially, this waste was mostly sent to China. However, since China’s declaration in 2018 that it would no longer buy recycled plastic scrap that was not 99.5% pure, the vast majority of export has been sent to Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, and Poland.

In an attempt to slow the export of unsorted plastic waste from European countries to non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) states, the EU banned its export in January 2021.

Unfortunately, the UK’s new post-Brexit sustainability regulations do not match those of the EU. Under the new rules, the UK can continue to ship plastic waste to developing countries. All that is required is “prior informed consent,” where the importer agrees to accept the waste.

Is This Waste Actually Recycled?

Regrettably, once the waste has been exported, the UK authorities have no real control over what happens to it.

Environmentalist groups have reported repeated cases where plastic waste imported from the UK has been burned or dumped in waterways.

Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular, have documented a large amount of plastic waste being imported by substandard recycling operations and then simply dumped. In 2019, Malaysia notably sent back thousands of tons of contaminated waste that arrived in their ports.

Plastic Island

 

How do Plastic Islands Form?

When buoyant plastic waste in our waterways is swept up by ocean currents, it  eventually enters a gyre, or converging current, where it remains until it degrades into microplastics.

This plastic waste collects in so-called plastic or trash islands. The largest of these islands is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is 1.6 million square kilometres wide. Weighing in at 80,000 tonnes, this accumulation of plastic waste is roughly three times the size of France.

It’s estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

 

Microplastics and Bioaccumulation

Microplastics, which are plastic fragments up to 0.5cm, enter the ocean through degrading plastic islands, sunken plastic waste, or when flushed through home waste systems. Given that these microplastics are so minute, they’re often mistaken for food, so it enters the ecosystem.

This continues up the food chain until it reaches humans when we consume seafood or other animals that have been fed on seafood. Having spent so much time in the ocean, these microplastics carry with them other pollutants and leech other chemicals that can have a negative effect on human health.

Single-use mask

Plastic Waste and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of complexity to the problem with chains banning reusable cups for safety reasons, supermarkets delivering with mandatory plastic bags for months and an increase in the use and littering of single-use items, such as plastic bottles and face masks, which contain plastic.

 

The Role of the Cosmetics Industry

The beauty industry is a significant contributor to plastic waste, producing around 120 billion units of packaging every year. Plastic packaging is the primary contributor to the world’s plastic waste problem.

Even where non-plastic packaging is used, like cardboard, the nature of many products requires them to be wrapped in cellophane (e.g. perfumes), and many times cardboard is coated with a thin layer of plastic (lamination).

Plastic beauty products are used, and disposed of, in such quantities that they have necessitated country-wide bans. The UK discarded around 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds every year until they were banned along with plastic straws and drinks stirrers.

Plastic microbeads, which are a major contributor to the microplastic problem, were also a regular ingredient in cosmetic products like exfoliating lotions, scrubs, and even some varieties of toothpaste. While the UK banned the use of plastic microbeads in 2018, and the EU is set to follow by mid-2021, many countries only have a voluntary ban in place.

While they have yet to be banned, the government is currently examining alternatives to the 11-billion wet wipes used in the UK each year. UK households discard so many wet wipes that they have created a new river bed in the Thames.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

What Are the Solutions?

Thanks to campaigners like David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, Greenpeace, and Extinction Rebellion and even TV programmes such as BBC’s War on Plastics, governments and industries have been put under pressure to tackle the growing problem of plastic pollution.

Currently, there are several proposed solutions to the UK’s plastic waste problem from industrial groups, the government, and cosmetics companies:

  • Sponsored by George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the 2019-21 Environment Bill is currently going through Parliament. Part of this bill addresses the recycling of plastic waste.

  • The British Plastics Federation is backing both more comprehensive investment in UK-based recycling centres and innovative cycling schemes such as RecoMed and VinylPlus that address previously unrecyclable plastics.

  • Due to consumer concern, businesses across a wide range of industries have introduced initiatives to reduce the amount of single-use plastics they use. Multiple cities across the UK have also been granted the Plastic Free Community status by the action group Surfers Against Sewage in recognition of their reduction of single-use plastics in the community.

  • Businesses within the cosmetic industry are gradually bringing in plastic-free skincare initiatives. These include brands like ours, replacing plastic packaging with glass, aluminium and cardboard alternatives.


    Unfortunately, many brands call themselves “plastic-free” when in reality they continue to use plastic in their packaging (e.g. lids, pumps, droppers, laminated cardboards, etc.).

    All Whitfords packaging and ingredients are 100% plastic-free.

  • Other brands are exploring bioplastic alternatives. There are many aspects to consider when it comes to bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics. For example, compostable plastics usually require industrial composting conditions (specific high temperature, moisture, microorganisms and air) to compost efficiently and within the expected timeframes. These conditions cannot be met by home composting and compostable plastics could still be around for years or end up being ingested by marine creatures. We’ll come back to this complex topic on a future post.

 

  • Some skincare brands are offering return/refill schemes to ensure their plastic waste gets properly recycled – hopefully in the UK. These schemes have pros and cons but overall offer a good alternative until the right recycling infrastructure is in place consistently throughout the UK.  They are obviously much easier to implement for large brands with brick & mortar shops and an established distributing network. 
Return-refill
  • Finally, more skincare brands are helping to prevent plastic pollution by creating solid versions of certain products and plastic-free beauty tools with materials like cotton, wood, bamboo, and natural sponge.

 

Looking to the Future

While plastic recycling efforts have increased dramatically over the last decade, the UK continues to be one of the largest creators and exporters of plastic waste.

However, consumers, manufacturers, retailers and the government are increasingly making sustainability a priority. Bans on disposable plastic items, innovative new recycling techniques, and the wider adoption of alternative packaging are hopeful signs of a future free of plastic waste.

There’s still a long way to go. With innovations in skincare and cosmetics paving the way, we’re optimistic that we’ll see sustainability become the driving force behind a new, more environmentally conscious beauty industry.

Whitfords