Plastic pollution is doing terrible damage to marine life and our wider environment.
Many of us feel shocked enough to want to fix the problem. But with so much plastic everywhere, where do you start?
Our homes tend to be bursting with plastic, and huge amounts of it ends up in the sea. So let’s look at everyday plastics that contribute most to the problem – and what we can do about them.
Spoiler alert: while there are plenty of things we can do as individuals or families, the bigger wins will come when manufacturers and retailers get on board. For that to happen we need the government to crack the whip. So before you go any further, please sign our petition.
Now read on to find out about the everyday plastics that should be first on the hit list – from wet wipes to plastic bottles and throwaway utensils.
Wet wipes: fatbergs in a sewer near you
Millions of disposable wipes end up being flushed down the toilet because they seem like moist tissues. But they usually contain plastic, and don’t just dissolve. Even wipes labelled “flushable” can cause chaos in sewers (fatbergs are actually wetwipebergs) and ultimately in rivers and oceans.
There are alternatives – either reusable, washable cloths or genuinely degradable/compostable wipes. But we also need better labelling on packaging, so that people know flushing wipes is never a good idea.
Crisp packets: plastic-free snacking
Almost none of our snack packaging is easy to recycle. Those tough, shiny-lined packs that keep our crisps crunchy and fresh are a plastic-foil hybrid that can’t go in the recycling. Dropped in the street they can blow into drains, rivers and the sea.
Practical solutions are in the pipeline – but given the billions of packets of crisps we eat every year manufacturers could do with incentives to get a move on.
Clothes and microfibres
Did you know your trousers and dresses might be partly plastic? And when you wash them tiny flecks of microplastics can get rinsed away – into sewers and seas, potentially entering the food chain.
There are some practical steps we can take at home – for example with the way we wash clothes. But it’s tricky to avoid plastics in things like sports or weatherproof clothing. So government action will be key.
Tyre microplastics: from road to sea
The millions of cars and lorries on our roads aren’t just clogging up our lungs and warming our climate with their emissions. Vehicle tyres contain plastics which shed tiny particles onto roads.
These microplastics can end up in drains and waterways, and could ultimately pollute the oceans. It’s a serious and under-reported problem.
We want to see manufacturers make tyres that last longer and don't shed microplastics. The government should tighten regulations and labelling for tyres.
Menstrual products: plastic-free periods
Millions of disposable menstrual pads and tampons are flushed down toilets every year in the UK, clogging sewers and polluting rivers and seas.
If you don’t fancy the washable, reusable alternatives, there are plastic-free disposables made of organic cotton or other more planet-friendly materials. These ought to be more widely available.
We want to see government push manufacturers and buyers in a plastic-free direction.
Plastic takeaway cutlery
Disposable tableware includes all sorts of single-use plastic containers and utensils – microwaveable tubs, plastic knives, forks, teaspoons and coffee-stirrers.
Alternatives can be made from materials like bamboo or sugarcane but these could cause other problems. The best option would be to switch to reusable alternatives, which also helps reduce waste.
But is there a role for government action – France, for example, has banned plastic cutlery.
Plastic cotton buds: small but dangerous
Those little sticks with cotton-wool swabs on each end are a serious environmental hazard – see any turtle that's impaled or choked by one.
The UK gets through billions of plastic cotton buds a year. They’re among the plastic waste items found most often on beaches.
But there’s a fix. Some companies and countries have already banned plastic cotton buds, switching back to wood or cardboard. There are government plans to ban these across the UK – ministers must make this happen asap.
Plastic water bottles: bring your own instead
Single-use plastic bottles – for mineral water, juices and so on – are among the biggest sources of litter on land and in the sea. The UK consumes around 10 billion bottles a year.
Some are recycled, but many are discarded. Plastic bottle caps are a common sight on beaches.
Industry and government should act – for instance by improving recycling, promoting bottle reuse schemes and offering water dispensers. And we can all help by carrying reusable bottles.
Cosmetics: skincare without plastic
You’ve probably heard of microbeads – tiny plastic particles in handwashes for example, which can end up in our seas. These are banned in rinse-off products like shampoos and toothpastes.
But there are still plastics in skincare products – not just the containers, but in the ingredients: from mascara to suncreams, even deodorants.
You can look out for more natural skincare alternatives and plastic-free packaging. But ultimately plastic should be banned from these products.
For a deeper dive into research on everyday plastics, see Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution – a report by the Eunomia research group, commissioned by Friends of the Earth. Or follow the links above to in-depth articles.