Guide to going plastic-free

We explore the challenges and myths around plastic



We're looking at the role 100Green needs to play in helping the UK to meet it's carbon-zero ambitions. But we are also exploring how we, as individuals, can change our behaviours to make a difference too.

This blog is all about the controversial material we call plastic.

What is plastic anyway?

'Plastics' is the term used to describe a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials used in a huge and growing range of ways. We use plastic products to help make our lives cleaner, easier, safer and more enjoyable. We find plastics in the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, and the cars we travel in. The toys we play with, the screens we watch, the IT tools we use and medical equipment we benefit from all contain plastics.

Put simply - modern life depends on plastic.

How harmful is plastic?

There are so many areas affected by our use of plastic that the simple answer is - it's pretty harmful.

In 2019, a report by the Centre of International Environmental Law found that nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle: 1) fossil fuel extraction and transport, 2) plastic refining and manufacture, 3) managing plastic waste, and 4) plastic’s ongoing impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways, and landscape.

If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.

You can download the full report here >

BUT, our lives do depend on this material so we can't just remove it. As with most challenges we face, the solution is found in human creativity and finding better ways to manage our use of it.

I recycle my plastics - does this help?

The recycling industry is changing rapidly, as are advancements in materials science and product design. As we've already discovered, plastic has an increasingly global footprint and will be affected by complex forces, from oil prices to national policies and consumer preferences.

The National Geographic publication recently explored the myths surrounding recycling. They founds that most experts agree that recycling remains an important way to reduce litter and waste and to recover valuable materials. It also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and conserves significant amounts of energy and water. But there are some important considerations that we all need to understand when we think about recycling.

Do all my plastics get recycled?

The National Geographic reported (2020) that about a quarter of everything consumers place in recycling bins ultimately can’t be recycled by the programmes that collect them. This includes such items as food waste, rubber hoses, wire, low-grade plastics, and many other items that overly hopeful residents toss in. Such materials waste hauling space and fuel, jam up machinery, contaminate valuable materials, and pose hazards to workers.

The advice? Definitely keep recycling! But it’s so important to follow your authority's recycling rules to keep the process running smoothly.

What about products that contain more than one material - do these get recycled?

It’s always a smart idea to check the latest rules for your recycling provider, but for many schemes you no longer have to separate out the plastic windows from envelopes, or remove staples from documents. Recycling equipment is now often equipped with heating elements that melt away adhesives or with magnets that strip away bits of metal.

An increasing number of recyclers are even able to take products made of mixed or unknown resins, as can be found in many toys and household items. This doesn’t mean you can throw anything you want into your recycling bun - but it does mean a wider range of products can be recycled than ever before.

What do all the recycling symbols mean?

We've been stumped by this too! And it's not just plastics. So as part of our journey to better understand how we can make a difference, we will be educating ourselves on what the various recycling symbols mean. You can view our blog on this here .

So is a plastic free world a possibility?

Well anything is possible - but probably not. In fact, plastic free is probably not even the solution to the climate war. Right now, human creativity is at work - arguably not fast enough and not funded enough. But it is happening. Manufacturing processes are becoming greener. Recycling schemes are becoming more efficient. Our great environmentalists such as David Attenborough are beating the drum for change. Even the global pandemic has brought into sharp focus the proof that governments have the ability to make big decisions and drive change. As individuals, we are understanding the importance of reducing our single use plastics.

Plastic is one of our most valued materials - that is not likely to change any time soon. But our attitudes towards the management of plastic has to change if we are to win the fight and protect our fragile, beautiful world.

We can do this - one little bit at a time.

Plasics Europe
Report: Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet
The Guardian: Single-use plastics a serious climate change hazard, study warns
National Geographic: 5 recycling myths busted