Hidden Plastics

 by Mia Parry

(image by John Cameron)

Plastics have become a vital part of our daily lives. From furniture to packaging we rely on their durability, versatility, insulating and light weight composition developed from the first modern plastic, Bakelite, invented in 1907. Although we are becoming more aware of our plastic consumption through wider recycling and ‘Bag for Life’ schemes, this family of synthetic polymers still hide in unsuspecting everyday products. 

Originally, people chewed on chicle, a gum made from tree sap, however over time it has become more economical to use synthetic ingredients. If you look at the back of a packet of gum you may see ‘gum base’. Many companies fail to disclose the composition of this component which often consists of polyethylene, the plastic used to make bags and bottles, and polyisobutylene, a rubber used to make the inner tubes of tyres. Therefore, gum, along with other single use plastic wastes are the culprits behind the 21 million tonnes of microplastics in the Atlantic Ocean as they are estimated to take 500 years to decompose. However, many companies have developed a plastic free and biodegrade chewing gum although with arguable textural compromises.

Wet wipes, which have become controversial in recent years, make up 93% of the material causing blockages in the sewage system, entering our rivers and seas. This costs the government a staggering £100 million per year to unclog and contributes to the eight million tons of plastic we add to the oceans per year. Wipes are made from polyester fibres with wood fibres so are not dissolvable like standard toilet paper. To combat this, the government stated that “Our focus for wet wipes is to work with manufacturers and water companies to develop a product that does not contain plastic and can be safely flushed. We are also continuing to work with industry to make sure labelling on the packaging of these products is clear and people know how to dispose of them properly.” Although wet wipes’ convenience has made them a staple product in many households, sourcing a biodegradable option will reduce the unnecessary plastic waste.

When buying a coffee, most of us assume that the cardboard cup can be recycled. However, they are thinly coated with a polyethylene plastic to prevent leaking and provide insulation which, along with waste liquid remnants, make coffee cups an unsuitable candidate for disposal in a general household recycling bin. Therefore less than 1% are recycled. Although biodegradable options are available, many companies are in the process of developing a wholly recyclable and watertight coffee cup. The answer to reducing the number sent to landfill is simple; a reusable cup. Buying one not only has environmental benefits but also comes with significant financial perks as many cafes offer a coffee at a discounted price if the customer brings their own reusable cup. 

Foil packaging for foods such as crisps are made from a metallised plastic film so are unsuitable for recycling. Walkers, the largest crisp manufacturer in the UK, produces 7,000 non recyclable crisp packets every minute, all of which end up in landfill. In protest, campaigners in Britain have been putting crisp packets into postboxes, obliging the Royal Mail to deliver them back to Walkers. However, in 2018 Walkers announced the launch of a nationwide recycling programme, where crisp packets can be posted back to be recycled or deposited at collection points free of charge.

The effects of plastics getting into our waterways is not only having a detrimental effect on local wildlife, but has also infiltrated our food systems in a more surprising way than just through the fish that we eat. Researchers in South Korea found that of the table salt samples taken from Europe, North America, South America, Africa and Asia, 36 of the 39 brands tested were found to contain microplastics. Due to this, it is predicted that the average adult consumes around 2,000 microplastic particles every year just from eating table salt. Trace metals and organic chemicals leach from microplastics in the body, which can have carcinogenic and mutagenic properties, damaging our DNA.