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Rethinking plastic pollution with Planet Patrol’s partner researcher, Tom Stanton

We talk to Tom Stanton, one of Planet Patrol’s partner researchers and Environmental Science lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Tom’s main research topic is microplastic, plastic and natural textile fibre pollution. Tom recently co-authored a scientific paper titled ‘It’s the product not the polymer: Rethinking plastic pollution’. In this blog, we explore Tom’s paper and ‘rethink plastic pollution’.

The plastic pollution problem

Plastic pollution is global. Large pieces of plastic break down into tiny particles called microplastics that can enter food chains. Plastic debris is found all over the planet, even in remote areas such as the Arctic. It is estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste in our oceans, so it is undeniably a widespread problem. However, our fixation on plastic pollution is diverting our attention from other, and potentially more pressing, environmental threats. It is so important that the impacts of plastic pollution are not misrepresented by industry, government, or the media.

Focus on the product – not the plastic

With plastic, the root cause of the problem is not the material itself but the overconsumption of the products it makes and the way that they are disposed of. Although plastic pollution is terrible, plastic itself is a useful and versatile material with many benefits. Plastics are able to safely store consumables, whilst being cheap, lightweight, and durable. Their use also contributes to reducing food waste and improving sanitation. It is not plastic that it is the enemy, it is the way we make and use products and a ‘throwaway’ mindset. As well as minimising unnecessary consumption, product design needs to be improved so all plastic products can be recycled, repaired or reused at ‘end-of-life’. An investment in waste management infrastructure will also be required to manage this.

News articles and reports that frequently vilify plastics have played a part in encouraging manufacturers and consumers to make so-called ‘greener’ switches to cans and glass bottles. However, both these materials require highly-energy intensive manufacturing processes. Therefore, we risk trading a lower plastic footprint for a larger carbon footprint. Additionally, litter that is logged onto our free Planet Patrol app provides first-hand evidence that plastic alternatives are still being littered. This problem persists for as long as overconsumption practices and lack of waste management infrastructure remain as they are.

Metal drinks cans found as litter on a Planet Patrol clean up

Does plastic pollution mask other pollution problems?

Extensive media coverage and political legislation surrounding plastic pollution has overshadowed the fact that humans pollute the environment in so many other ways, as well. Pollutants include greenhouse gases, particulates from internal combustion engine vehicles, natural textiles, black carbon, pesticides from agricultural practices, nuclear radiation, drugs and medicines, and toxic metals from electronic waste. By putting all our efforts into cutting down plastic, we can  forget  the other unsustainable practices that we are engaging in. These (often less visible) pollutants are more mobile and could potentially be more toxic, although the effects of many pollutants are not as well-known as they are for plastics and microplastics. This also means that any funding and time that is going towards tackling environmental issues is often allocated disproportionately to highly publicised issues and projects.

Why we changed our name and how you can help tackle pollution

Plastics only represent a small proportion of pollutants that threaten wildlife. All types of materials are found on our clean-ups, including cans, glass, paper, polystyrene, and cigarette butts. It is for this reason, as well as those outlined above, that we changed our name from Plastic Patrol to Planet Patrol. It describes our mission more accurately, as we are fighting against the overconsumption of all types of materials and we want to protect the planet in any other ways that we can. If we can focus on system change, we can end the throwaway society that we have found ourselves living in. We all need to widen our mission and reduce all types of pollution, and that means eliminating ‘single-use’. We need to do this before it is too late.

Download the Planet Patrol app to record litter that you find and help paint a true picture of man-made materials that pollute the environment to provide evidence for the system change we so desperately need.

Read Tom’s co-authored paper here and article in The Conversation here.

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