Julie Hope is a post-doctoral researcher at the Energy & Environment Institute (EEI) and part of the Plastics in the Environment Cluster. She investigates the role of microalgae living on the seafloor on carbon and nitrogen cycling, and biological stabilisation of the bed. She is interested in understanding how stressors, such as microplastics, may impact microorganism communities and the functions they mediate.
While plastic products are convenient and our lifestyles are increasingly ‘on-the-go’, we need to think about the everyday choices we make. We hope that throughout July we can encourage more people to think about the small but impactful changes to daily habits, that everyone can make. The 2019 international coastal clean-up initiated by @ourOcean, documented the collection of over 32.5 million items from beach clean ups across 116 countries1. Topping the list of items collected were sweet/crisp wrappers (4,771,602 items), cigarette butts (4,211,962), plastic bottles (1,885,833) & caps (1,500,523) and straws/stirrers (942,992). These are repeat offenders, seen year after year on our beaches.
There’s a great analogy used in relation to plastic pollution; When the bath is overflowing you don’t reach for the mop, you turn off the tap. We are currently doing a lot of mopping but it won’t solve the issue alone. We also need to invest in turning off the tap; that is limit unnecessary (single-use) plastic production at the source, improving recycling rates to reduce waste and moving towards a zero-waste economy.
We absolutely have to hold manufacturers accountable for plastic production and prevent unnecessary plastic waste in the first place. We can do this by asking governments to put in policies to drive change, but we can also make personal choices to say no to single use plastic. Let’s have a closer look at the top 5, what we can do to help and any known effects
1. Food wrappers
Crisp and sweet wrappers were at the top of the list of items collected, throwing smoked cigarette filters off their longstanding top spot. While opting for unpackaged products is best, this is sometimes difficult with products like crisps and sweets. You could choose packaging that is less harmful to the environment, such as plastic free crisp and sweet packets but often this is difficult to determine and most of the big brands cannot be recycled at home2, but @terracycleUK have a few crisp packet recycling schemes. If giving up on these snacks isn’t an option, buying things in bulk can also help reduce your plastic waste. For example, purchasing a larger share bag of crisps or sweets rather than individual packets. Better yet, see if you can find alternative, loose products from your local bulk food store. That way you can fill your own containers with dried fruit and nuts, rice crackers, chocolates and sweets.
2. Cigarette butts
Smoked cigarette filters have topped the list for a number of years and stand out from the other food and drink related products. Over 4.5 TRILLION filters, that’s nearly ¾ of all smoked cigarette butts, are carelessly discarded every year2. Unfortunately, many people think cigarette butts will degrade in the environment over time, however, this is not the case. Cigarette filters are made from around 15,000 cellulose acetate (microplastic) fibres bunched together3, and are full of nasties; with 70 known cancer-causing agents and over 200 toxins4. When these toxins, including nicotine, arsenic, formaldehyde, lead and cadmium leach into our waters, soils and sediments they can have devastating effects on organisms and water quality3.
When butts are tossed on the street or out car windows, they can be physically transported by wind to waterways, or swept into drainage systems where they cause blockages, reduce the efficiency of our sewage treatment, by impacting microorganisms, and leak into rivers and the ocean. It is important to dispose of butts in disposal bins (once they are put out, of course), but you can also put pressure on your local government to increase the infrastructure to support this, as it can positively impact cigarette litter. For example, cigarette recycling bins have been installed across San Francisco, leading to a 60% decrease in cigarette litter5.
3 & 4. Bottles and bottle caps
Every year in the UK, 5.5 billion plastic bottles escape home recycling6. Instead, these bottles end up as waste in landfills, littering our streets and in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Plastic water bottles take hundreds of years to breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces, but they never disappear. This results in microplastics (smaller than 5mm in size) that cause yet more issues due to their small size, high toxin absorbance and greater uptake by organisms7. The littering of single use bottles and other plastics can have detrimental effects on soil, sediment and aquatic environments and the organisms living there.
Instead of buying bottled water or soft drinks this month, why not invest in an insulated non-plastic bottle or repurpose a used glass bottle. It will not only save you money, but will keep your water free of all the nasties that can be associated with plastic bottles and significantly reduce your individual impact on the environment. #showmeyourbottle.
While plastic straw bans have come into force in many countries, they are still available in some regions, which means these pesky plastics still continue to top the list of littered items showing up on beaches globally. The ban is a first step towards cleaner oceans, but it is clear we also need to tackle the production of straws and other single-use items (including those above) as these continue to be produced, used and carelessly discarded at an alarming rate. #MoreThanStraws.
Stay tuned and sign up
Stay tuned to @PlasticEnvRes throughout July for more posts on how to get involved in #PlasticFreeJuly. You’ll find information on plastics in different environments, the harm they cause, information on plastic free campaigns and top tips for reducing your own plastic use.
Join @ourOcean for the international coastal cleanup – 18 Sept 2021, @mscuk for the #GreatBritishBeachClean week – 17-26 Sept 2021, and @PlasticEnvRes for more information on the @YorksWildlife, beach clean 24 July 2021. https://www.ywt.org.uk/events/2021-07-24-waves-waste-beach-clean-fraisthorpe-24-july. Clean-ups will not solve the issues with plastic pollution alone, but while we fight for change we can keep our environments safe and beautiful.
 Ocean Conversancy, International Coast Clean up, Annual Data Release
 Which Report - Crips, chocolate and cheese are worst offenders for recycling, The Guardian
 Belgazui et al., 2021. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.144165
 Hoffmann et al., 2001. DOI: 10.1021/tx000260u
 Hold onto your butt campaign from Surfriders
 Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd (PKG0086A)
 Gallo et al., 2018. DOI: 10.1186/s12302-018-0139-z