Refill not landfill – the cost of plastic pollution

Sarah Ferriss and Sarah Smith

8.3 billion metric tonnes - that is the amount of plastic estimated to have been produced to date1. Globally, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, and half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes2. These are staggering figures given most of it ends up either in landfill or the natural environment. And none of the most commonly used plastics are biodegradable1.

Plastic has many benefits. It is durable, light weight, water resistant and is useful in medical equipment, construction materials, packaging, electronics and much more. However, the properties that make it useful are also part of the problem – the fact that it lasts so long means that it persists in the environment for 1,000s of years. And over time it breaks down into microplastics that can be absorbed by wildlife and into our bodies.

Plastic has been found in pristine, remote environments from the Arctic to the deep sea. Huge accumulations of plastic have occurred in some places such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a major ocean plastic accumulation zone in waters between California and Hawaii3.

Many studies have shown that animals can either ingest or become entangled in plastics including whales, seals, seabirds, turtles, fish, and invertebrates4. Ingesting plastic can disrupt feeding and cause damage to the stomach and intestinesand entanglement can cause injury or death. One study found that for entangled right whales dying from their injuries the average time to death was nearly 6 months- a truly awful statistic that shows this is a welfare issue as well as a conservation one.

On top of all this, microplastics can enter the bodies of animals, as well as humans, and accumulate in organs. Microplastics have even been detected in the placentas of newborn babies7. In the marine environment, microplastics absorb and concentrate toxic organic substances and so can increase their toxicity by a factor of 108. It’s clear the picture is pretty dire, and even still it is very difficult to quantify the extent or the impact of plastic pollution on our planet and indeed, on ourselves.

Disposing of Plastic
Once we have finished with it, there are three main disposal paths for plastic – it can be recycled, thus delaying (rather than avoiding) final disposal. Plastic can be destroyed thermally, although this is limited and not without concern. And plastics can be disposed of in landfill, open dumps or the natural environment.

In theory recycling should reduce the amount of new plastic produced, but that’s complicated to assess. In addition, recycling capacity remains limited particularly against increasing global demand. Plastic is costly and challenging to collect and to sort, and the technology doesn’t yet exist to effectively recycle many types of plastics. Various companies have reported challenges in obtaining recycled plastic, which can be an important part of their sustainability goals9,10. At Green Blue You, we have found that some of our suppliers have sometimes struggled to source recycled plastic. Against this backdrop, it is clear that there is a limit to how much plastic can be recycled and the capacity of recycling in the system at the moment.

What can we do?

The most effective thing we can do is to reduce plastic use altogether, but when we do use plastic, to avoid single use as much as possible. There are times when it is unavoidable, for example in healthcare and medicines. But there are loads of great swaps that you can make, without losing the convenience that plastic so often brings.

When we set up Green Blue You, we had many discussions on whether or not to stock plastic. It’s really tricky. We know that for some household products, such as cleaning sprays, people prefer to use plastic containers as they are durable and don’t easily break. And while glass is a fantastic alternative, it doesn’t suit everyone. We decided that we would stock plastic but only recycled containers (and a limited number of bioplastics) and only as part of our refill model – so on buying new plastic containers, there would always be the option to refill and re-use again and again.

We really believe that, after reducing what we use, re-use has to be a key part of the sustainability solution – be it plastic, or glass, or aluminium containers. We would love to see refills rolled out in supermarkets, and be a common part of every day life. It might take a little more time and effort, but we need to re-use as much as we possibly can, if our planet is to stand a chance.
1 Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances3(7), e1700782.

2 UNEP (2023) Our Planet is Choking on Plastic.

3 Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F. et al. (2018) Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Scientific Reports 8, 4666 (2018).

4 Kühn, S. & van Franeker, J.A. (2020). Quantitative overview of marine debris ingested by marine megafauna. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 11: 110858.

5 Arbelo et al. (2013). Pathology and causes of death of stranded cetaceans in the Canary Islands (1999-2005). Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 103(2):87-99.

6 Moore, M. J.A. Bogomolni and R. Bowmanet al. (2006)Fatally entangled right whales can die extremely slowly. Proceedings Oceans'06 MTS/IEEE-Boston, Massachusetts, 18–21 September 2006. 3 pp. Available at

7 Ragusa, A., Svelato, A., Santacroce, C., Catalano, P., Notarstefano, V., Carnevali, O., Papa, F., Rongioletti, M. C. A., Baiocco, F., Draghi, S., D'Amore, E., Rinaldo, D., Matta, M.,  Giorgini, E. (2021) Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta, Environment International, Volume 146, 106274.

8 Tel-Aviv University. (2022). Microplastics increase the toxicity of organic pollutants in the environment by a factor of 10, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 17, 2023 from

9 Reuters (2021) P&G faces shortage of recycled plastic in race to meet sustainability goals.

10 Soft drinks industry faces a recycled plastic shortage, says Ribena maker | E&T Magazine (

Image credit: Science Photo Library, NTB

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