The complete guide to plastic: what it is, and why it’s bad for our planet
09 July 2021 | Aimee Tweedale
From your water bottle, to your crisp packet, to the tiny fibres in your t-shirt: plastic is everywhere.
Its invention in the 19th century sparked a global love affair with the material. After all, it’s durable, lightweight, easy to mould into different shapes, and cheap to make. That’s why there’s so much plastic produced worldwide.
So much so, in fact, that each year we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste. Added up, that’s about the same weight at the entire human population1!
In recent years, you might have heard more about plastic pollution – especially in our oceans. But what is plastic, and why is it so harmful for the environment?
For Plastic-Free July, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to plastic. Keep reading to find out what it is, where it goes when you throw it away, and what you can do about plastic pollution.
What is plastic?
The word “plastic” applies to many different materials. After all, your stretchy elastic waistband is a kind of plastic, as is the hard case on your smartphone. Plastics come in many forms!
What they all have in common is that they’re made of polymers: long molecules that are made up of lots of different atoms. These polymers are what make plastics flexible.
The polymers in plastics are usually synthetic. That means they’re man-made.
There are some plastics that can be found in nature. Cellulose, for example, is a natural polymer that’s found in plants, and often used to make sticky tape2. But, for the rest of this article, we’re mostly going to talk about synthetic plastics. (Sorry, cellulose.)
What is plastic made of?
Dirty fossil fuels are used to make many types of plastic. Almost 99% of them, in fact3.
Lots of plastics are made using crude oil (known in its refined form as petrol) or natural gas. The very first synthetic plastic was made from phenol, an acid that comes from coal tar4.
As you’ll know if you’ve read our guide to fossil fuels, using them in this way is bad for the planet. Why? For 3 simple reasons:
- Fossil fuels aren’t renewable, which means they will run out
- Mining, drilling, or fracking for fossil fuels is harmful to the environment
- Fossil fuels pollute our atmosphere, including the water and the air all around us
How is plastic made?
Plastics are made using a type of chemical called “petrochemicals”. These are often released as byproducts in different processes involving fossil fuels.
For example, the process of refining crude oil and turning it into car-friendly petrol releases a byproduct called ethane. Ethane can then be turned into ethylene, a petrochemical that can be used to create lots of different types of tough-to-recycle plastics5.
Partly because of the use of fossil fuels, plastic production is responsible for 5% of global greenhouse emissions6. Find out more about why this is such a problem by reading our guide to climate change.
When was plastic invented?
Natural plastics have been around for thousands of years. But synthetic plastics are much more recent.
Way back in the medieval era, tool-makers made use of animal horns, which contain keratin – a natural polymer. Scientists began experimenting more with natural polymers, like cellulose and rubber, in the 19th century7.
A polymer named polyvinyl chloride – now better known as PVC – was first created in the late 19th century. But scientists struggled to turn it into anything commercially useful, because it was too brittle8.
The big breakthrough for plastic as we know it today came in the early 20th century.
Who invented plastic?
Belgian-born American inventor Leo Baekeland was the first person to create synthetic plastic from fossil fuels, in 1907.
He called his creation Bakelite. It was soon being used in the making of telephones, radios, and other common items around the house. The fact it was new made it very fashionable. In fact, in the 1920s, there was even popular Bakelite jewellery9!
Production of plastics ramped up after the second world war, at a rate faster than any other material. So much so that by the 1990s, plastic waste had tripled in the past 2 decades10.
That’s when it started to become obvious that the world had a very big problem...
Why is plastic bad for the environment?
As well as the greenhouse gas emissions that are created in production, there’s another big problem with plastics. They stick around for a very long time, polluting our air, water, and land.
What is plastic pollution?
Most synthetic plastics aren’t biodegradable. This means that once you throw them away, they stay in our natural environment for hundreds of years to come. This is what’s known as plastic pollution.
It doesn’t help that lots of lightweight plastic isn’t even taken to landfill, let alone recycled. Many single-use plastics are dropped on the ground, tossed out of car windows, or dropped on top of already-overflowing rubbish bins11.
Scientists have even claimed that the amount of plastic around the world has created a “plastic cycle”.
This means that tons and tons of discarded plastic is breaking down into tiny particles, which then travel through our water, air, and even our bodies. People around the world have been found to eat, drink, and even breathe plastic particles12.
Tons of plastic waste then ends up in our oceans, where the problem of plastic pollution is most urgent.
What is the main cause of plastic pollution?
The biggest cause of plastic pollution in nature is simply how much of it we use and throw away. One 2019 study estimated that humans have made about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic so far, with 6.3 billion tons becoming plastic waste.
Of that waste, only 9% has been recycled. 79% is either sitting in a landfill, or clogging up nature as litter13. One global survey found that cigarette butts were the most common type of plastic waste found in nature14.
No matter where you drop it, much of this litter ends up in our oceans, after being carried away by wind, drains, sewers, and rivers. You might be surprised to hear that most of the plastic found in the ocean comes from takeaway food and drinks. Single-use plastic bags, drinks bottles, food wrappers, and food containers were the most common culprits found in the sea15.
In fact, packaging of all kinds accounts for about half of all the plastic waste worldwide16.
Your clothes have a part to play, too. Lots of synthetic fabrics contain tiny plastic fibres, such as polyester. These can shed from our clothes and find their way into nature. The same goes for plastic particles in road markings, personal hygiene products, and many other day-to-day objects17.
What are the effects of plastic pollution?
Plastic waste wreaks absolute havoc on our environment. There are too many effects of plastic pollution to list here, but here’s just a few that have been observed in nature.
- Animals and birds eat plastics, causing blocked intestines and other health problems18.
- Toxic substances are released from plastics into soil – or, if burned, those pollutants are released into the air19.
- Sea creatures have also been found to eat plastic, or get tangled up in it. A million seabirds die this way each year. Not to mention, 100,000 marine mammals, too20.
- Plastic and other trash in the ocean has begun forming into huge “garbage patches” in the ocean. This happens when plastic becomes trapped in a gyre, which is like a giant whirlpool.
- These plastics can block sunlight and leak chemical pollutants into the sea, harming marine life21.
How much plastic is in the ocean?
A bafflingly huge amount of our discarded plastic ends up in the oceans. About 8 million tons per year, in fact. That’s about as much as 5 bin bags full of plastic placed on every foot of every coastline around the world22. Hard to imagine, right?
How does plastic end up in the ocean?
While about 20% of plastic in the ocean comes from fishing boats and other marine sources, a whopping estimate of 80% comes from plastic use on land23. There are 3 main ways that your plastic winds up floating in the sea.
- Landfills. When lightweight plastic (like a shopping bag) goes to landfill, it can easily get blown away. This is how a lot of it travels into drains or sewers, and eventually, the ocean24.
- Litter. Did you know that worldwide, 73% of the litter left on beaches is made of plastic25? In fact, litter that’s left just about anywhere can end up making its way to the ocean.
- Drains. Plastics that we flush away down our drains, such as microbeads in face washes or cotton buds, follow the water to the ocean. Even doing your laundry can contribute to the problem, as clothes shed microplastic fibres that escape into your water drainage system26.
7 shocking plastic pollution facts
- Humans have made 8.3 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s. That’s about the same weight as roughly 1 billion elephants.
- Only about 30% of plastic ever made is still in use. That’s right. The other 70% has been binned, burned, or recycled. But sadly...
- Only 9% of all plastic ever binned has been recycled. You read that right! Of all the plastic used since Leo Baekeland made his discovery, less than 10% has actually been successfully recycled into something new27. Find out more about how to recycle plastic in our full guide to recycling.
- Nearly a million plastic bottles are sold around the world every single minute28. And each one will be around for years and years to come, because...
- A plastic water bottle can take 450 years to decompose. Your toothbrush might even take 50029!
- A lorry’s worth of plastic is dumped in the ocean every minute. It all adds up to 10 million tons of plastic per year30.
- Over 40% of plastic created is used once, then thrown away. This is maybe the most shocking fact of all. For all the damage it causes to our planet, a huge amount of the plastic we create is only used for a matter of minutes, or even seconds31.
What can I do about plastic pollution?
So much of the plastic we create is used once, then chucked in the bin. Tackling the gigantic issue of plastic pollution means that we all have to change the way we think about plastic.
It all comes back to the three Rs of sustainability: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
- Reduce: cut down your plastic footprint by buying less plastic. It seems obvious, but it’s a tricky task: plastic is in so many of our day-to-day purchases! Perhaps you could start by cutting down on fizzy drinks in plastic bottles, or swapping your disposable make-up wipes for a muslin face cloth.
- Reuse: try replacing your usual plastic purchases, like coffee cups, with a reusable alternative you can carry with you. Shop for second-hand items whenever you can. And if you do use plastic, see if you can find a second use for it, rather than chucking it away. Perhaps you could plant seedlings in that old water bottle!
- Recycle: certain types of plastic can be recycled. Since only 9% of it currently makes its way into the recycling system, this is where we need to up our game. More on that below!
Can plastic be recycled?
Yes, plastic can be recycled! But not every kind of plastic can. To find out what types of plastic can be recycled in your area, take a look at your local authority.
See our full guide to recycling for more information. Plus: take a look at this breakdown of common plastic recycling labels (and what they all mean).
Go greener with OVO
Did you know that your home energy makes up a mighty 28% of your personal carbon footprint32?
With OVO, you can rest easy knowing that you’re getting 100% renewable electricity33. Plus: we’ll plant 1 tree in your name every year34, and give you access to OVO Greenlight, our nifty energy-saving tool.
Want to go even further? Our extra green upgrade, OVO Beyond, comes with 100% carbon-neutral energy (including 15% green gas – one of the best mixes you can get in the UK)35. We’ll also plant 5 extra trees for you each year.
Interested in joining us on the journey? Get a quote in less time than it takes to boil the kettle.
Sources and references:
32 Based on analysis carried out by the Carbon Trust for OVO Group (2020), 28% of an average individual’s carbon footprint in the UK comes from energy. In this analysis, the carbon footprint includes the following lifestyle categories: energy, transport, shopping, food and drink and holidays. See table below for each category. This carbon footprint data has been calculated using BEIS 2020 emission factors. This excludes emissions from things that the average person cannot directly control such as supporting the NHS, defence, government bodies, etc. Please note these figures are not reflective of potential changes to your habits during the coronavirus pandemic.
33 100% of the renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates and how these work. A proportion of the electricity we sell is also purchased directly from renewable generators in the UK.
34 Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.
35 Enjoy even greener energy with OVO Beyond in comparison with our standard OVO plans. In addition to 100% renewable electricity as available with our standard plans, OVO Beyond reduces your yearly carbon emissions from the energy used in your home that is supplied by OVO to net zero by providing 100% carbon-neutral gas (15% green gas and 85% offset) and offsetting all associated lifecycle carbon emissions involved in the production and consumption of your electricity & gas, you will also get 5 trees per year in UK schools and communities and other green benefits. The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates and how these work. A proportion of the electricity we sell is also purchased directly from renewable generators in the UK. The green gas we sell is backed via renewable certificates (Renewable Gas Guarantees of Origin (RGGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Gas Guarantees of Origin and how these work. We offset the remaining emissions by supporting UN REDD+ carbon reduction projects that are certified to the Verified Carbon Standard or the Gold Standard. See here for more information on how we restore nature and protect rainforests with our offsetting programmes.