The Big Plastic Count

The Big Plastic Count

The Big Plastic Count

Yoko Shibata, Principal Scientist at PetMedix, explains the size of the plastic pollution problem, and what can be done about it.

What is the Big Plastic Count?

Our Babraham Research Campus colleague at PetMedix, Jo, brought this campaign to our attention. The Big Plastic Count invites as many households, schools, community groups and businesses as possible to count the plastic waste, recycled or discarded, in the week 11th-17th March. The findings will be used to convince the UK government to do more to reduce the plastic pollution.

So, how serious is the plastic pollution?

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), we produce 400 million tons of plastic waste every year1. About a third of plastic produced is used for food and beverage packaging and 85% of that is virgin plastic, freshly produced from fossil fuel. Not only contributing to CO2 emission during the production and transportation, manufacturing of virgin plastic is also adding into the accumulation of global plastic waste. Most of the plastic waste will end up in landfill and water systems, eventually reaching the ocean via rivers.

In 1997, the first of the five ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patches’ was discovered by Captain Charles Moore between the coasts of California and Hawaii. Five gyres, large rotating currents, in the Pacific Ocean gather plastic into concentrated patches. According to the BBC Future story2, at least 79,000 tonnes of ocean plastic are floating inside an area of 1.6 million square kilometres, about three times the size of France. Microplastics, pieces that are smaller than five millimetres, account for 94% by number of what is floating in the patches.

Where else is plastic found?

Plastics are used because of its durability; it takes many centuries to degrade. Larger plastics simply break down to smaller and smaller fragments into microplastic. However, unlike any organic matters, nature does not have the power to completely degrade it—hence microplastic remains in the natural system. In 2018, scientists found 17 different types of plastic in arctic ice3. Many fragments are even smaller than microplastics, nanoplastics are fragments that can be smaller than the width of a human hair, small enough to become airborne.

Plastic is found not only in marine water, but also in fresh water, and making its way to our drinking water, both tap and bottled. Plastic is also found in food: starting with fish and shellfish, then apples and lettuces, it has made the way up the food chain and is now found in human organs, including blood, heart and lungs. Humans take in plastic particles from inhalation and ingestion. The long-term medical risk of micro and nano plastic is yet to be discovered.

Plastic Pollution: Key Facts from the UNESCO Library portal4

• Plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution and around 8-10 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year.

• Research states that, by 2050, plastic will likely outweigh all fish in the sea.

• In the last ten years, we have produced more plastic products than in the previous century.

• Plastic generally takes between 500-1000 years to degrade. Even then, it becomes microplastics, without fully degrading.

• Currently, there are about 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics in the ocean.

There is some good news, however. Groups of environmentally conscious entrepreneurs are developing systems to collect plastic in the ocean5. Others are focusing on recycling and repurposing the used plastic. While these efforts do not reduce the amount of plastic already circulating in the system, they do help to slow down the production of plastic from raw oil.

What can we do about it at Babraham?

Reducing waste is one of the biggest topics discussed on campus by the Babraham Research Campus and the Green Labs representatives participating in the NUS Green Impact Scheme. In our third year of the scheme on campus, we have a total of 16 organisations, big and small, participating with the same goal in mind: to make our scientific operation more sustainable.

We, biomedical scientists, rely heavily on single-use plastic every day. Twenty years ago, when I was at MRC-LMB, there were glass bottles and even glass pipettes circulating within the organisation, washed and reused (they have a dedicated facility, and it remains in place even today). In industry, glass pipettes have all but disappeared, replaced by sterile plastic pipettes, individually wrapped in yet another layer of plastic. We use single-use flasks; is anyone guilty of using sterile single-use Erlenmeyer flasks for plasmid preparation in E. coli? I think many of us are.

What is important now is to recognise the seriousness of the plastic we put into the black and yellow bins every day. Can any of them be recycled, rather than incinerated? Can we replace any of the single-use plastic to reusable? This is not a just a question and job for the government, this is something everyone needs to ask and act upon for the future of our children, grandchildren, our cohabitants on this planet and our planet itself.

Remember, we are only the custodians of this planet for the time we are on it. We owe to our fellow inhabitants to leave the planet in a better, not worse, state when we leave.

So, if you are intrigued, join us and get counting!


  4. UNESCO Ocean Library Portal: