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The stark truth about how long your plastic footprint will last on the planet 

There are certain things we want to make sure we leave behind for our children and grandchildren after we're gone, such as a financial nest egg or a property to inherit.

But we are also unwittingly creating a toxic legacy of plastic waste that will blight future generations for centuries to come.

The disposable plastic products we use everyday are anything but disposable in environmental terms, and can take over 400 years to biodegrade.

The booming production of plastics in recent years, partly fuelled by demand for single-use items such as coffee cups and bottled water, means the world has manufactured more plastic in the last decade than in the whole of the previous century.

Awareness of the catastrophic impact this is having on the environment is growing, prompting the government to pledge to tackle the UK’s “throwaway culture”.

Plastic litter invades the beaches of Perranporth, Cornwall 

This week the startling scenes of Cornish beaches left buried under heaps of human rubbish dredged up by Storm Eleanor have brought a sharp focus the crisis plastic waste is creating in our oceans.

Yet a key step to tackling the crisis is awareness of the sheer scale of the plastic footprint our everyday conveniences are creating.

Centuries of waste

The most durable plastic items, such as bottles, disposable nappies and beer holders, can take 450 years to biodegrade - over five times the average life expectancy of a British person. In terms of plastic bottles alone, the UK is generating a gargantuan amount of long-term waste by throwing away an estimated 35 million every year.

Other commonplace items such as straws can take up to 200 years to biodegrade and foam plastic cups can take 50 years.

Plastic bags are around for less time - taking about 20 years to degrade - but their impact on the environment can be equally as harmful, with plastic bags known to be eaten by a variety of marine wildlife.

Jo Ruxton, a former researcher on Blue Planet and producer of the A Plastic Ocean film, said single-use items could float around in the seas for decades causing havoc in the marine eco-system.

She said: “It is estimated that 60 to 70 per cent of the plastic sinks to the bottom [of the ocean]. It gets brittle as it gets old and breaks into tiny pieces and mixes into the plankton, which is the heart of the marine food chain.

“We are producing far too much plastic believing it is disposable. It’s not, it’s indestructible.”

Shipping the problem abroad

Hitherto, the UK's approach to disposing of waste plastic has been to ship the majority overseas. Of the millions of tonnes of plastic  waste generated in the UK every year 63 per cent is exported and 37 per cent recycled domestically, according to recycling charity RECOUP.

The UK has shipped more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012, around two-thirds of its total plastic recycling.

China will accept virtually no more imported waste plastic Credit: Getty 

However a recently imposed Chinese ban on imported waste could see more plastic, around 540,000 tonnes, being buried in landfill sites or being incinerated in the UK.  

Exporting plastic waste to China, who processed half of the world's recycled plastics in 2016, has been lucrative for the UK's recycling industry, however now councils will be forced to look at alternative options.

An estimated 15 million tonnes of waste is sent to landfill sites annually, down from 25 million tonnes in 2010. Out of the waste sent to landfill sites in 2015, only 7.7 million tonnes was biodegradable.

Recycling plastic 

Empty bottles dumped in front of glass recycling bins at a centre near Bracknell, Berkshire Credit: PA

More than a million tonnes of plastic packaging was collected for recycling from all sectors in 2016, according to RECOUP, a recycling rate of just under 45 per cent.

The charity says 500,000 tonnes of plastic packaging collected from UK households was recycled, making up just over 50 per cent of the total plastics packaging recycled.

The remaining 1,244,774 tonnes that is not recycled ends up going to landfill. The UK recycling rate for ‘waste from households’ was 44.3 per cent in 2015, falling from 44.9 per cent in 2014.

However, while recycling helps reduce the production of new plastics, it doesn't not solve the problem of long-term waste. Plastics can only be recycled a finite number of times and at the end of the process there will still be a mass of unwanted material that takes decades to degrade. 

Tackling a “throwaway culture”

Around 2.5 billion plastic-lined paper cups are used in Britain each year, but less than one in 400 are recycled Credit: AFP

The outcry over the impact plastic is having on the ocean, which has been graphically depicted in the recent BBC Blue Planet II series, is generating political momentum to curb waste.

On Tuesday a ban was introduced on tiny pieces of plastic known as microbeads, which are found in rinse-off cosmetics and have become a ubiquitous source of marine pollution.

This week it also emerged that the Government is planning to extend the 5p levy on plastic bags to corner shops and small businesses.

Official figures revealed that in the wake of the initial plastic bag charge the number used by shoppers dropped by more than 85 per cent.

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, said that the Government is "determined to tackle the throwaway culture which plastics encapsulate".

Businesses are also responding to consumer demand to reduce waste. Earlier this month the high street food chain Pret A Manger increased the discount it offers to customers who bring in a reusable coffee cup from 25p to 50p.

Small changes

Rubbish left on a beach in Dover, Kent Credit: PA

Alongside new legislation and corporate initiatives, environmentalists argue that a real reduction in plastic waste can only come with a sea change in consumer habits.

As such, Greenpeace suggests a number of small changes people can make to reduce their plastic footprint.

The first steps involve avoiding buying items such as plastic bottles of water and carrying a permanent or reusable one instead. It also advises using a refillable cup when buying takeaway coffee to help cut down on the estimated  2.5 billion disposable cups discarded every year in the UK.

When going to the supermarket, taking your own bag is just the start of cutting down on plastic waste. The charity urges shoppers to be aware of the wrapping their products come in and opt for items such as loose fruit and vegetables rather those in plastic.

In the bathroom, consumers can cut down on waste by opting for bars of soap over the liquid form and “naked” toiletries such as shampoo bars.

The NGO also recommends buying large cardboard boxes of washing machine detergent instead of plastic boxes of capsules.

Louise Edge, Senior Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “The move away from disposable plastic is going to need commitment from government, corporations and consumers if it’s going to come fast enough to save our oceans.

“When you make the decision to reduce your own plastic footprint by carrying a reusable bag, bottle or coffee cup, you’re not only reducing the risk to marine wildlife, you’re also sending a message to retailers, manufacturers and ultimately the government that this issue matters to you.

“If half the people who watched Attenborough’s Blue Planet took at least some action, that message would be deafening.”