No More Plastic, Please

Article from

A few facts about plastic bags:

  • A person uses a plastic carrier bag on average for only 12 minutes.
  • A plastic bag can take between 500 to 1000 years to break down in the environment.
  • In the UK at least 200 million plastic bags end up as litter on our beaches, streets and parks ever year.
  • When a plastic bag enters the ocean it becomes a harmful piece of litter. Many marine animals mistake plastic bags for food and swallow them, with painful and often fatal consequences.

Morgan Hoesterey Message in the Waves


The most important thing to understand is there is no such thing as "away" when it comes to plastics. When people say "Oh just throw it away", where precisely is "away"?

Just because it's no longer in our home, in our work place or in our car does not mean its "away" it just means we no longer have to view on a daily basis and its somewhere else on this planet.

Out of sight out of mind, and not our problem!

Well remember we've only had plastic since the 1950's and it is anticipated that it lasts for at least 400 years, a lot of scientists now estimate that age at more like 1000.(MCS) New Scientist) (UNEP)

Meaning it's all still here, and this amount is growing at an alarming rate.

First off for the time-poor amongst you there are two short very informative films to watch. They are only a few minutes long, and all I hope is that before you leave this page you can at least just take a look at the first one.

Patagonia Oceans As Wilderness - Synthetic Seas

Plastic Planet: The Curse of the Carrier Bag

Plastic production uses 8% of all the world's oil production. (waste online) At the current rate the world produces 200 million tons of plastic a year. Less the 3.5% is recycled. (Algalita) (Greenpeace Ocean defenders) Or in other words, 96 % of all the worlds plastic is not recycled. (Greenpace ocean defenders) (Algalita)

The world plastic production is increasing at 3.5% per year. This means every twenty years the amount of plastic we produce doubles. ( (eurotradeinfo)

The world produces over 200 million tonnes plastic annually. Around half of this is used for disposable items of packaging that are discarded within a year. This debris is accumulating in landfill and the problem is growing. (Thompson).

Excess packaging is not just bad for the environment its bad for your pocket. In studies carried out in 2007 it has been established that excess packaging costs the average UK family about GBP470 a year. ( (BBCNews). The UK 2.8 million tonnes of plastic waste in the UK each year, this figure is rising by 2% each year.(

The dawn of the plastic era was in 1950s. This was when we first started to use plastic for consumer goods on a mass scale.

What a lot of people don't know is plastics do not biodegrade, they photo degrade, breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil, waterways, oceans and entering the food web when ingested by animals.

Scientists estimate each plastic item could last in the environment anywhere between 400 to 1000 years.(New Scientist) (UNEP) In short, think of it this way since the 1950's almost every piece of plastic that we have ever made, used and thrown away is still here on this planet in one form or another, whether its in our homes, in landfill or in the environment; and it will be here for centuries to come.

About Plasticizers

Plasticizers are a group of chemicals that are added to plastic resins during the manufacturing process. As a general rule plasticizers soften the final plastic product increasing its flexibility. However because these plasticizers are an additive and not actually part of the plastics molecular structure its been established that traces of these chemicals can leach out when they come into contact with a product - for example food or drink.

It has also been established that some of these plasticizers are now known to be carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. ( (ecologycenter) (sciencelinks) Take PVC for instance, which is commonly used to package foods and liquids, ubiquitous in children's toys and teethers.

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recognized the chemical used to make PVC, vinyl chloride, is a known human carcinogen. However the European Union has only banned the use of DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate) in PVC, the most widely used plasticizer in PVC children's toys. (Environmental Research Foundation)

Other plasticizers such bisphenol A (BPA) - a known hormone disrupter that when released into food and liquid acts like oestrogen - are still in use, but now being fazed out in the UK.

About four-fifths of all marine litter comes from land, swept by wind or washed by rain off highways and city streets, down streams and rivers, and out to sea. Also some is intentionally fly-tipped off cliffs and dumped off beaches once again going into the sea. (Only 20% comes from boats, it's a common misplaced blame to assume it's all from boats) (Algalita) (UNEP)

Nearly 90% of floating marine litter is plastic. Since the dawn of the plastic era it is estimate that 5% of all the world's post production plastic has entered the world's oceans. That is just over 100 million tons of plastic. (Algalita) (Greenpeace Ocean Defenders)

In June 2006 United Nations Environmental Programme report estimated that there are an average of 46,000 pieces of plastic debris floating on or near the surface of every square mile of ocean. However in the most concentrated areas this figure was reported to be at over 1 million pieces. (UNEP)

Worldwide, at least 143 marine species are known to have become entangled in marine debris (including almost all of the world's species of sea turtles) and at least 177 marine species (including 95% of all the worlds sea birds) have eaten plastic litter. ( 2004) (seabirds ref, Alterra/Save the North Sea/North Pacific University of Victoria BC,Canada)

Its estimated that over 10's of thousands of seabirds choke or get tangled in plastic debris (including domestic waste and disused fishing gear) and about 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, other marine mammals and sea turtles suffer the same fate.

UK beaches have on average 2000 pieces of litter for every kilometer. (MCS) However this average is only given to larger items. The number of plastic particles (small plastic pieces) on a beach in just one square foot can range from hundreds to thousands in some of the worst polluted area's. (Thompson) (Algalita)

Most importantly: People often ask, "What is the most concerning form of plastic marine debris?

Is it discarded fishing nets (ghost nets), plastic bags, or six-pack rings?"

The truth is it's everything plastic in the ocean. All plastic breaks down into particles. It does not dissolve; it just breaks into tiny pieces and stays there. At this size it is small enough to be ingested by every single organism in the world's oceans - animals as small as krill and salps (plankton feeders) right up to the great Blue Whale.

These particles known as oceanic microplastics are now so prolific in the oceans that they out-weigh plankton. In some large areas it is at a ratio of 30 to 1 (so 30 times more plastic than plankton) and the problem is growing fast.(Algalita) (Greenpeace Ocean Defenders) Oceanic microplastics mix with the plankton, and it's now known that a very heigh percentage of the worlds plankton feeders mistakenly inject it. Scientists now nickname vast surface areas of the world's oceans as "Plastic soup".

So in short, all throwaway plastic is a real threat and causing huge damage to the marine environment, it's not just plastic bags.

At first sight, you'd be forgiven for thinking this photo on the left was just a pretty mosaic. It's actually the stomach contents of one dead laysan albatross chick. Note the toothbrush in the centre right of frame, this gives you an idea of the scale. To give an example of how long plastic lasts in the ocean. In 2001 a piece of plastic found in an albatross stomach bore a serial number that was traced to a World War II seaplane shot down in 1944 (US Fish & Wildlife)

Latest Findings on the usual suspects, and hopefully by now you can see that plastic bags are just a tip of a much greater problem. One thing you will notice is it doesn't matter which beach in the world you walk along, when you find plastic marine debris all to often it's the same old usual suspects (objects).

The Ocean Conservancy has just published their report on debris collected on beaches around the USA. Never before in the United States have conservationists, scientists, and policy-makers had a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the types and sources of debris that are impacting the coastal areas. Ocean Conservancy released key findings from the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program, a five-year national study of trash in the ocean.

Ocean Conservancy's research was conducted under the direction of marine debris expert Seba Sheavly from 2001 to 2006 with the goal of setting a nationwide scientific baseline of the marine debris problem in the U.S. The findings of the report mirror the findings of debris in European marine waters. Plastic bags account for over ten percent of the debris found on US beaches. Plastic bottles account for 21% of all marine debris. Plastic straws are the most prolific debris item on US beaches amounting to 27.5% of all marine debris.

The Ocean Conservancy has just published their report on debris collected on beaches around the USA. Here is a basic table of their findings:

Ocean Conservancy also coordinated International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), which involves over 70 countries worldwide annually. The ICC provides a level balanced 'snapshot' of the amounts and sources of litter found on beaches around the world.

Plastic Particles and Toxins in the Ocean

Marine plastic works much like a sponge and collects other hydrophobic chemicals (these are chemicals that don't mix well with water) that have entered the marine environment through use and disposal over the years. The group name for these chemicals is POP's (persistent organic pollutants) chemicals that take decades to breakdown, such as chlordane, PCB, DDT, and DDE to name a few, but heavy metals such as mercury, zinc and lead are also known to attach themselves to marine plastic. (Tokyo University) (Algalita)

Many of these nasties ( that are used as pesticides, insecticides, fire-retardants and herbicides) have now been outright banned in several countries including the UK because they are dangerous human health hazards, however they are still prevalent in the marine environment.

Scientists now know that the persistent organic pollutants (POP's) that have arisen in the environment from sources can attach to the surface area of plastic in the marine environment.

Studies have shown that animals in the marine environment are ingesting increasing amounts of plastic. A major research priority is to establish whether, upon ingestion, these plastics might transfer chemicals to the food chain.

If this proves to be the case, we may have even more cause for concern as the process of bio-accumulation has the potential to increase the concentration of persistent pollutants along the food chain.

You may remember how the toxic effects of the pesticide DDT were so heavily felt by birds, like the peregrine falcon, at the top of the food chain. Well, it's worth noting that human beings are at the top of the marine chain.. (Thompson)

Once again if all this science talks of persistent organic pollutants in the marine environment is bit much to take in, then please listen to this radio interview from Dr Roger Payne and his team.

Plastic bags consumed this year:

That averages out somewhere between 290-300 plastic bags used per person per year in the UK (Parliament.UK) ( Or another way at looking at it is we could be using upto one million bags per minute. On average we use each plastic bag for approximately 12 -20 minutes before disposing.

Some reports estimate that plastic bags can take over 400 years to degrade. ( (BBC news) An estimated 17 billion plastic bags are given away annually by United Kingdom supermarkets-enough plastic to cover an area the size of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and west Yorkshire combined. Note: this estimate don't state all retraders only supermarkets. (Parliament.UK) ( an area the size of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and west Yorkshire combined. Note: this estimate don't state all retraders only supermarkets. (Parliament.UK) (

Most of them imported from Thailand, Malaysia and China. (So BBC news tell's us via the carrier bag consortium in the news report above) On average we only recycle 1 plastic bag in every 200 we use. ( Over the period 1994 - 2006, MCS Beachwatch litter surveys have recorded averages of between 29 - 46 bags per km surveyed. Since 1994 the average density of plastic bags found during Beachwatch has increased by 31.8% from 29.2 items/km to 38.5 items/km (MCS)

In 1995, high numbers of plastic bags (more than 70% of total litter) were reported in dredge samples from the continental shelf along the French and Spanish Atlantic Coast (Galgani et al, 1995). During a survey of floating marine debris conducted in the South East Pacific plastic bags far outnumbered other items at 47.6% of all items. (UNEP/GPA).

In the marine environment plastic bag litter is lethal, killing many species - including sea birds, whales, dolphins, seals, seal lions and turtles every year. (Planet Ark) (NSW.GOV.AU) Plastic bags can be mistaken for food and consumed by a wide range of marine species. Ingestion of litter such as plastic bags can cause physical damage and mechanical blockage of the oesophagus and digestive system, resulting in a false sensation of fullness or satiation, as the litter may remain in the stomach. This can lead to internal infections, starvation and death. (MCS) ( (

These bags are a particular hazard to species such as sea turtles, toothed whales and albatross that consume jellyfish or squid, as these prey species resemble plastic bags when floating in the water column. (MSC) (UNEP) (Albatross research from DLNR 2007)

Plastic bags have been recorded as a cause of entanglement in marine animals. Entanglement can restrict movement, leading to starvation, drowning or suffocation. (MSC) (UNEP) Once an animals dies from either entanglement or plastic ingestion, their bodies decompose and the plastic is released back into the environment where it can kill again. (MCS)(Planet Ark) (NOAA)

A Minke Whale washed up dead on the Normandy coast. Cause of death? - The animals' stomach was full of plastic bags, and throw-away plastic packaging. Some of the bags could be identified as coming from British high street shops.(MCS)

Notice on this page I've talked about the deaths of marine animals as estimates. Scientists and marine vets are in agreement that it is very hard to put an exact figure on how many animals die as a result of plastic pollution as they are only able to record the animals that wash ashore or strand. However what they do know is that beached animals make up only a tiny fraction of the animals that die out at sea. (OlryDLNR) (Brainard,NOAA) (Klavitter,USFWS)

Anyone born before the 1940's will belong to the very last generation to remember walking a beach and not seeing plastic marine debris. Anyone born after the 1950's and for at least the next 450 years into the future will have to put up with our generation's ever growing plastic marine pollution and the huge damage it's causing. (Moore) Now in my humble opinion I hardly think that is fair and I want to try to help limit that damage, I really hope you agree?

Take Action

How you can help?

If we are going to try to curb this pollution then we have to start with ourselves and the way we as individuals live our day to day lives. I know you've probably heard this all before but have a little faith and by just making the smallest changes you can make an impact and a difference. It's the old environmental mantra "be part of the solution, not the problem"

Be Plastic bag free and help your community become plastic bag free, here are the how to's, the FAQ's and a simple guide to follow.

If you live near the coast and want to get hands on, you can sign up to adopt and clean a local beach with our dear friends at the MCS (Marine Conservation Society).

While you're down on the beach why not take part in a global study. Learn about mermaid's tears (plastic pellets) and help an international team of scientists plot toxic ocean pollutants.

No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do so little." - Edmund Burke