Plastic Free July is a movement started by the Plastic Free Foundation that includes a challenge: to produce zero plastic waste for the entire month of July. We talk about what plastic is, trends of plastic production and consumption, and what we can do to slow down plastic pollution.

Plastic: what is it?

Plastic is a resistant, waterproof and non-biodegradable material derived from hydrocarbons, i.e. polymers made of carbon and hydrogen. These components are the basis of the petrochemical industry, which deals with extracting, refining, and processing hydrocarbons of fossil origin – gas and oil. Thus, plastic is the end product resulting from these processes. 

The history of plastic begins with Alexander Parkes from the UK, who invented the first type of plastic known as Xylonite in 1860-1, used for boxes and objects. In the last 160 years, the production of plastic has never stopped

… and where is it? 

Plastic is literally everywhere. From food packaging to the clothes bought for 5 euros at the street market or the tyre of your car. A study published this year found microplastics in human blood for the first time.

According to Grand View Research, the packaging, construction and consumer goods industries absorb almost three-quarters of the global plastics market. The same applies to Europe, where 60% of plastics are used in the packaging and construction sectors (Plastic Soup Foundation).

Use of plastics in Europe

However, future trends of plastic manufacturing seem not to diminish. In 2022, global oil demand will exceed the 100 BPD threshold for the petrochemical and energy sectors together (OPEC) markets. According to the International Energy Agency, oil demand for plastics production will continue to grow: even if Europe cuts plastic consumption by 40% by 2050, several developing countries, including China and India, are expected to double their plastic usage.

Why is plastic a problem? 

If the main environmental damage in the energy sector derives from CO2 emissions due to combustion, the problem in the petrochemical sector is that most plastic products are designed to be used only once and then thrown away. 

To date, there are 7 different types of plastics. Nonetheless, not all of them are recyclable in the same way: the possibility to collect, recycle and create functional, recyclable products from remoulded resins varies according to the type of plastic and technologies available. Category 7 includes materials that cannot generally or easily be recycled, while other types should be collected separately: for example, PET bottles should be divided from PVC caps. 

And where does plastic end up?

According to a study, 80% of the plastic that has ever been produced is still on our planet, while only 9% of plastic waste is currently recycled. In Europe, three quarters of the 5.8 million tonnes of discarded clothes and textiles annually end up in open landfills. To date, 8 million tonnes of plastic garbage are poured into the sea every year. 

Food packages, bags, straws and disposable bottles: the mountains of plastic flowing into our seas and oceans might reach 29 million tonnes by 2040. There are currently six known floating plastic islands, the largest of which is the Plastic Island in the Pacific Ocean. However, plastic waste does not spare the seabed either. 

Source: Plastic Free A.P.S. 2019.
Source: Plastic Free A.P.S. 2019.
Garbage on our coast lines
Garbage on our coast lines
Source: Plastic Soup Foundation
Source: Plastic Soup Foundation

Consume less, reuse more

Since plastic production is not expected to reduce in the coming decades, decreasing plastic consumption proves a revolutionary act. It seems obvious, but buying fewer packaged products, refusing the single-use straw, reusing containers and exchanging clothes – those are actions we should integrate into our daily lives. 

Going back to the Plastic Free July initiative, the Plastic Free Foundation has also produced a guide with tips on reducing plastic use and recycling plastic waste correctly. During our holidays, pay attention not to leave rubbish in our forests, parks, streets or beaches and perhaps clean up what others leave around. 

Every action makes a difference. There is only one planet.

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