What are the impacts of plastic on the environment?

In this journal, we're going to look at plastic in depth and give you a clear understanding of plastic, it's impacts on the environment, the benefits of going plastic free and how we can start to reduce our single use plastic.

Plastic waste impacts the environment

Plastic hasn't been around for very long - in fact it only started to become mass produced in the mid 1940's and took off in the 60's and 70's as consumers began to realise it was a cheap, versatile alternative to many traditional materials such as wood, paper, glass and ceramic. It was even touted as an environmentally friendlier alternative to things like paper bags in supermarkets as plastic bags have a lower overall pollution rating than paper bags- plus - why cut down all those trees!

Plastic can be made into so many different types of product that can be flexible, transparent, airtight, waterproof, strong, lightweight, easily mouldable, sanitary and indestructible.

At the time, most people had no concern how this seemingly miracle material would be disposed of.

We now know of course, that plastic's incredible properties, it's versatility and low cost, that are at the root of the plastic pollution crisis that we face today, and have been facing for at least 4o years.

Understanding the impact of plastic on the environment

 Without wanting to demonise plastic as it has many significant uses, we simply cannot carry on producing and disposing of the vast quantities of plastic that we have been for decades.

 As David Attenborough said:

 "There are so many simple things we can do," he said. "It's absurd to suggest we can do totally without plastic but there are so many areas where we use plastic without a thought."


We need to cut off the tide of plastic that is entering the waste stream and the oceans.

Plastic, after all is oil and our planets ecosystem and climate simply cannot cope with the rate at which we are extracting, processing and disposing of fossil fuels.

 Some of the impacts of plastic production include:

  • Temperature rises from fossil fuel burning
  • Land, water and air pollution with plastic and micro plastics.
  • Huge plastic islands are choking our oceans and killing wildlife.
  • Plastic particles have been found in the most remote locations such as  Arctic ice (The BIG North Pole) and living tissue.
  • Plant and animals are carrying plastics in their cells, with unknown long term health effects

Read Earth.Org For a full account of how plastic pollution affects wildlife on land and the oceans.


But what about recycling as a solution? The stats on recycling plastic are not good.

Taken from Everyday Plastic: The Big Plastic Count

How plastic waste is dealt with in the UK:

  • 46% Incinerated. Burning plastic to produce energy is harmful to health and releases CO2.
  • 25% Landfill. Thrown away and buried in the ground forever. Potentially leaching chemicals into the ground.
  • 17% Shipped abroad. For other countries to deal with by recycling, incinerating or dumping. This has huge impact on the health of people living nearby.
  • 12% Recycled in the UK. New products made from recycled plastic.



The results of The Big Plastic Count send a clear and urgent message: recycling is not enough – we must turn off the plastic tap. The UK’s recycling systems cannot cope with the amount of plastic packaging waste leaving our homes – estimated to be a staggering 1.85 billion pieces per week – of which only 12% is likely to be recycled in the UK.

Too much focus is placed on recycling and making plastic recyclable rather than reducing plastic in the first place. Recycling plastics is not the silver bullet that many think it is. A circular economy needs to be built around materials that can be reused and recycled many times over, which most plastic cannot.

What are the benefits of going plastic free? 

The benefits of moving to plastic free are manyfold. Obviously it would be impossible to completely cut out all plastic from your life in one fell swoop, so we are talking about reducing use of single use plastics such as food packaging, takeaway containers, hot drinks cups and cold drink bottles. Also plastics in the home that can easily be replace with natural materials alternatives such as cloths, scourers, cooking utensils and clothes. And also plastic bottles that are unnecessary, such as new spray bottles for cleaning products, shampoo and other personal care items that could be refilled.

Plastic free benefits
  • Firstly we will see benefits to our health. Research has shown that plastic is a serious endocrine (hormone) disrupter. Our bodies and other animals are in a delicate balance of chemicals and the reactions they cause. Chemicals found in plastics that leach into our food and drinks can disrupt or even mimic these bio chemicals and lead to imbalances and poor health. Removing plastic packaging from your food and drink is the safest way to avoid this.
  • Preventing micro plastic pollution. Micro plastics not only enter our bodies, we are also washing them down our drains into water systems when we use plastic in our home. Plastic cloths, scourers, clothes like polyester and fleece all shed micro plastics. Again finding natural alternatives will prevent these particles entering our rivers, oceans and atmosphere.
  • Preventing waste - by reusing eg water bottles, produce bags, lunch boxes we cut down on the waste we produce - making life simpler. No more memorising or looking up recycling numbers every time you need to dispose of a piece of single use plastic.
  • Saving money - buying a reusable, eg water bottle or coffee cup may be an initial investment, but once that investment is made - you can drink water anywhere you go fro free. Taking out a coffee is cheaper than picking up a takeaway. If you fancy a takeaway - many places now offer savings on refills- the Refill app shows you all the places near you that will offer free water refills and discounted hot drinks.

This July we are talking about plastic in depth, and how you as an individual, family or group can reduce your single use. Keep following our journal posts for more including:

  • Guide to different types of plastics & hidden plastics
  • Top 10 alternatives to single-use plastics for everyday use
  • Creative ways to reduce your use of single use plastics & reuse what you already have
  • How did you do? How to educate yourself further on reducing plastic waste.

Let's tackle plastic pollution together and remember, that it is small changes taken by very many people that will make a difference and not to be put off by thinking you have to be perfect -This quote from The Zero Waste Chef, Anne Marie Bonneau says it all:


“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”