How to reduce your use of plastics

Distressing footage from Blue Planet II of plastic pollution damaging the oceans has galvanised the UK into taking action. Although the problem is vast, you can make an immediate, positive impact to reduce your plastic usage - here are 10 ways to reduce your plastic consumption

Rubbish washed up on beach.

Plastics facts

  •   13 billion plastic bottles are discarded by UK consumers each year. (Recoup)

  • 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year. (Science)
  • 1.7 grammes of microfibre are released per wash of a synthetic fleece jacket. (University of California)
  • 85% of human debris on the world’s shores is made up of plastic microfibres. (MA Brown study)
  • 72 beverage containers are found per 100m of beach in England. (MCSUK)

What’s the issue with using plastic?

More than eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year. This debris results in an estimated $13 billion a year in losses from damage to marine ecosystems, including financial losses to fisheries and tourism as well as time spent cleaning beaches.

Garbage patches have developed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, mainly comprising plastics that are not biodegradable. The microplastics (plastics less than 5mm) of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch make the water look like a cloudy soup. These enter oceans as beads from personal care products; microfibres from clothes; nurdles (lentil-sized plastic pellets used to make nearly all of our plastic products); or from larger plastic items that have broken into small pieces. Microplastics are found everywhere from seabeds to Arctic ice.

Drifting plastic accumulates algae and smells similar to the krill that many marine animals feed on.  Thousands of albatross chicks die in the North Pacific Ocean from starvation, toxicity and choking on plastics. The UK’s fulmar population is also affected, with nurdles found in the digestive system of 90% of sampled birds.

How to reduce the amount of plastic you use

1. Ditch the plastic bags

Plastic bags are more likely to be littered/Credit: Getty Images

Lightweight plastic carrier bags – carrier bags with a thickness below 50 microns –become waste more quickly and are more prone to littering due to their lightness. Littering of plastic carrier bags results in environmental pollution and aggravates the widespread problem of litter in water bodies, threatening aquatic eco-systems worldwide.

2. Natural beauty

Bathroom shower curtain and plastic shampoo bottles
Try using personal care products that aren’t plastic/Credit: Getty Images

Choose personal care products (such as scrubs and peels) that use sand, salt or coconut rather than plastics particles that release microbeads and nurdles that ultimately make their way into the seas.

3. Reusable coffee cup

Beach cleanup volunteer using claw to pick up litter on beach
Buy a recyclable cup and use it again and again/Credit: Getty Images

Take your own recyclable coffee cup when you next order a brew. Speak to and write to those coffee chains that still use plastic straws, lids, cups and plastic cutlery.

4. Buy loose ingredients

Close up of  female hand placing organic tomatoes in a shopping basket.
Buy raw, loose ingredients/Credit: Getty Images

When buying from a supermarket, choose options that are not packaged in plastic. Avoid processed food, which often comes in plastic packaging. Buy fresh and raw ingredients loose from shelves and cook your own meals. Consider ordering vegetable boxes from local farms and organic suppliers. They deliver fresh seasonal food plastic-free.

5. Avoid synthetic fibres

one coloured one white pile of washing
Avoid synthetic fibres when buying clothes/Credit: Getty Images

Buy clothes made from natural fibres. Many of our clothes are made from plastics such as polyester and acrylic. Synthetic fibres flake off in washing machines and enter the water course, settle on seabeds and enter the marine food chain. A single washing cycle can release 700,000 microscopic fibres.

A campaign last year by Greenpeace spurred several outdoor brands to promise to end their use of PFCs in their clothing and use new oil-based coatings that give just as good water-repellency.

6. Write to purveyors

Close up of man holding produce in grocery store
Ask your favourite companies to rethink their packaging/Credit: Getty Images

Write to shops and companies, such as train companies and supermarkets that sell fruit and pastries – often single items – wrapped in hard plastic. Urge them to switch to reusable or fully compostable alternatives.

8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year”

7. Tidy a beach

Two male environmentalists removing litter from seashore
Picking up litter on the beach makes a difference/Credit: Getty Images

Take part in a beach clean. Spend just two minutes doing a litter pick on the beach. Spread the word by documenting your efforts online with the hashtag #twominutebeachclean.

8. Think different

High Angle View Of Wooden Toothbrushes On Table
Try a toothbrush made from bamboo/Credit: Getty Images

Look at alternatives for other everyday items, such as toothbrushes made from bamboo rather than plastic, or organic cotton buds with 100% biodegradeable card sticks. You can refill empty laundry detergent bottles at local stores or consider beeswax food wraps rather than cling film made from crude oil.

9. Report nurdles

Nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets and resin materials typically under 5mm in diameter. When released during the transport, packaging, and processing of plastics, these materials find their way to coastal waterways and oceans and frequently end up in the digestive tracts of various marine creatures, causing starvation and death. Seal Beach, Orange County, California, USA. (Photo by: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Report when and where you see nurdles/Credit: Getty Images

Nurdles are the pre-production plastic pellets used in plastics manufacturing, and they end up in our oceans in their millions due to mishandling and accidental spilling in industry. Nurdles attract and concentrate background pollutants such as DDT and PCBs to highly toxic levels. They are often mistaken for food by marine and bird life. They don’t biodegrade – over time they simply fragment into smaller and smaller particles. If you find any nurdles, you can register them here.

10. Reduce consumption 

a variety of colorful shirts hang on a clothing rack at a thrift store
Resell or repurpose your clothes/Credit: Getty Images

Cut down your own consumption – and not just of obvious plastic. A great deal of the plastic issues around clothing, for example, could be addressed if we bought fewer new clothes in response to seasonal fashion drives, and resold or repurposed the ones we have. Several clothing brands such as Rapanui Clothing offer vouchers to encourage clothing return or recycling programmes.

A plastic bottle littering a beach in Melbourne, Australia. Sunset and horizon line in the background.
Plastic bottles are likely to end up in the sea/Credit: Getty Images

Can I recycle plastic?

Ordered line of recycling bins for filtering rubbish.
If you can, recycle your plastic/Credit: Getty Images

It is not easy, but it’s best to avoid using plastic in the first place. Some plastics cannot yet be recycled and some local authorities are better than others at recycling. Most local authorities now accept hard plastics in collections but check what they take. Generally, local authorities do not collect plastic bags, wraps and film. WRAP has a good resource to work out what plastics you can recycle.

BBC Countryfile Magazine and plastic

Many readers have expressed concern that the magazine is sent to subscribers in a plastic polybag. Our parent company Immediate Media has issued this statement:

We realise that the use of single-use plastic is an issue and, along with other members of the publishing industry, we are actively looking for alternatives. We currently keep the weight of our mailing polythene as low as possible and have deliberately chosen a recyclable material. Although not all local authorities provide kerbside collections for polythene, it can be recycled at larger supermarkets. We are actively exploring alternative options. Extensive work needs to be done to assess the validity of each option and to be certain that they will protect our magazines in the postal system.


Main Image: Plastic pollution on Isle of Wight beach/Credit: Getty Images