Plastic Waste Management

What Is Plastic Waste?

The Definition

Plastic is a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc., that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.

Plastic In Our World.

Plastic is an important and ubiquitous material in our economy and daily lives. It has multiple functions that help tackle a number of the challenges facing our society. Light and innovative materials in cars or planes save fuel and cut CO2 emissions. High-performance insulation materials help us save on energy bills. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste. Combined with 3D printing, bio-compatible plastic materials can save human lives by enabling medical innovation.

Why Is Plastic Problematic?

Plastic as we know it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years, but in that time it has transformed everything from clothing, cooking and catering, to product design, engineering and retailing.

One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is that they’re designed to last – for a very long time.

And nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today.

Four Billion Plastic Bottles…

Drinks bottles are one the most common types of plastic waste. Some 480bn plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016 – that’s a million bottles per minute.

Of these, 110bn were made by drinks giant Coca Cola.


How Much Plastic Waste Ends Up In The Sea?

It’s likely that about 10m tonnes of plastic currently ends up in the oceans each year.

In 2010 scientists from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and the University of Georgia in Athens estimated the figure as 8m tonnes, and forecast that to rise to 9.1m tonnes by 2015.

Of these, 110bn were made by drinks giant Coca Cola.

Top Of The List…

China was top of the list of countries mismanaging plastic waste, but the US also featured in the top 20 and contributed a higher rate of waste per person.

Plastic waste accumulates in areas of the ocean where winds create swirling circular currents, known as gyres, which suck in any floating debris.

There are five gyres around the globe, but the best known is probably the North Pacific gyre.

It is estimated debris takes about six years to reach the centre of the North Pacific gyre from the coast of the US, and about a year from Japan.

All five gyres have higher concentrations of plastic rubbish than other parts of the oceans.

They are made up of tiny fragments of plastic, which appear to hang suspended below the surface – a phenomenon that has led it to being described as plastic soup.

And the hard-wearing qualities of most plastics means that some items can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Plastic Crisis UK?

The Marine Conservation Society found 718 pieces of litter for every 100m stretch of beach surveyed during their recent Great British Beach Clean Up. That was a 10% increase on last year.

Why Is Plastic So Harmful To Marine Life?

For sea birds and larger marine creatures like turtles, dolphins and seals, the danger comes from being entangled in plastic bags and other debris, or mistaking plastic for food.

Turtles cannot distinguish between plastic bags and jellyfish, which can be part of their diet. Plastic bags, once consumed, cause internal blockages and usually result in death.

Larger pieces of plastic can also damage the digestive systems of sea birds and whales, and can be potentially fatal.

Over time, plastic waste slowly degrades and breaks down into tiny micro-fragments which are also causing scientists concern.

In The Water…

A recent survey by Plymouth University found that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.

This can result in malnutrition or starvation for the fish, and lead to plastic ingestion in humans too.

The effect on humans of eating fish containing plastic is still largely unknown.

But in 2016 the European Food Safety Authority warned of an increased risk to human health and food safety “given the potential for micro-plastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”

What Is Plastic?

The History Of Plastic


Most frequent questions and answers

Plastics are simply chains of like molecules linked together. These chains are called polymers. This is why many plastics begin with “poly,” such as polyethylene, polystyrene, and polypropylene. Polymers often are made of carbon and hydrogen and sometimes oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorous, or silicon.

The term “plastics” encompasses all these various polymers.

Although there are many polymers, plastics in general are lightweight with significant degrees of strength. Plastics can be molded, extruded, cast and blown into seemingly limitless shapes and films or foams or even drawn into fibers for textiles. Many types of coatings, sealants and glues are actually plastics.

Black bags that contain recycling don’t get recycled. This is because when it gets to the recycling plastic, operators can’t see whats inside the bags. If for whatever reason you need to put recycling out in a bag, use clear recycling sacks that can easily show whats inside the bags.

To make today’s plastics, chemists start with various elements (atoms such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on) derived from natural resources.

Chemists combine various atoms to make molecules, which are simply two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds. When making plastics, these molecules generally are called monomers. These monomers then are combined by chemical bonds into a chain or a network—this is called polymerization. And the resulting materials are called polymers. Or plastics. 

There is no exact number. It’s sort of like asking how many types of bread there are. Plastics aren’t simply one material made the same way every time. Although plastics can be broken down into broad types or categories, there actually are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics.

Biodegradability of plastics depends largely on the type of plastic and where it ends up. Many plastics do not biodegrade to any significant degree, regardless of environmental conditions, while some do so very slowly if exposed to air, water and light. Both types are best recycled or used for their stored energy

Supporting Documents

Supporting document created by BBC on the plastic waste crisis

Supporting Documents

Supporting document from Plastic Pollution Organisation

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