What SUP: How Can We Limit Single Use Plastics Pollution

Single use plastics (SUPs) are plastics that are used once and then disposed of, which includes plastic bags, drinks bottles, take-out coffee cups, and plastic straws. However, rather than being recycled, a significant proportion of this plastic ends up polluting our oceans. The issue was emphasised in BBC’s Blue Planet II, following which a major media surge has catapulted the topic into national public concern. Worries have arisen amid claims that by 2050, plastic in the ocean could outweigh fish.

Only 10% of SUP products are recycled worldwide due to the lack of specialist facilities, people not taking plastic waste to be recycled, or the products not being accepted by local authorities. Many plastic products are contaminated with food or chemicals which make them difficult to recycle, and this can result in a whole batch of potentially recyclable plastic being sent to landfill. Lots of this buried plastic finds its way into the oceans where it is broken down into tiny plastic particles, releasing dangerous chemicals and toxins. This process is incredibly slow as the plastic is non-biodegradable; a single plastic bottle can take 450 years to break down – that’s 450 years that the plastic could be floating around in the ocean!

Apart from being incredibly detrimental to marine life, we can also be seriously harmed by these plastics. The tiny plastic particles that are produced are toxic to humans and animals and have been linked to cancer, birth defects and infertility. With over 8 million tons of plastic being emptied into our oceans each year, urgent action is needed to protect both us and the wildlife around us.

Here is a list of 10 plastic-saving changes you can make to your lifestyle right now:

  1. Get a re-usable water bottle. Many plastic drinks bottles are only designed for limited use and eventually get thrown away.
  2. Give up chewing gum. Believe it or not, gum is almost entirely composed of plastic. Yum!
  3. Keep re-usable, fold-up shopping bags with you. They’re available for less than £5 on Amazon.
  4. Swapping balloons (sorry) for decorations that can be re-used, such as bunting.
  5. Take re-usable coffee cups to the coffee shop rather than using the disposable take-out cups provided.
  6. Ditch the plastic straws!
  7. Don’t buy food in black plastic packaging. The black pigment means the plastic is not detected when recyclables are sorted from non-recyclables, so the plastic is sent to landfill. Other coloured plastic is unadvisable too, as it cannot be re-pigmented during the recycling process.
  8. Buy ice cream cones rather than tubs.
  9. Swap cling-film for Tupperware boxes.
  10. Get a bamboo toothbrush. This one may surprise you, but normal toothbrushes are non-biodegradable SUPs!


Some companies are exercising the initiative to use recycled plastic in their products. Both Ecover and Fairy recently unveiled new washing up liquid bottles made from 100% recycled plastic, as well as ‘ocean plastic’ bottles containing waste plastic sourced from oceans. Ecover’s products are already widely available, while Fairy is set to release its new bottles made from 10% ocean plastic and 90% recycled general plastic in 2018. Similarly, PG Tips have vowed to remove all plastic from their teabags by the end of the year.

The University has also taken bold steps to reduce SUP waste around campus. Last week the University of Leeds Sustainability Services launched the #LeedsPlasticChallenge campaign that aims to reduce plastic waste around campus. The Sustainability Services vow to “work with local partners to reduce the use of single use plastics [and] to support research and teaching which investigates both the alternatives to, and impacts of, plastic use.”

In 2008, a vote expressed overwhelming support to ban the sale of bottled water in Union shops; an initiative that was enforced in 2010. This scheme has been a success as bottled water has been removed from Union shelves; however other drinks packaged in SUP plastic bottles that are likely to be discarded after just one use are still sold.
You will no doubt have seen ‘KeepCup’ coffee cups on sale too in stores and cafés around the University, which guarantee a free drink on purchase of the cup and 20p (being increased from 10p) off subsequent hot drinks. Discounts are also available at Costa (25p), Starbucks (25p), Pret (50p) and Greggs (20p) when you take a re-usable cup for your hot drink.

In short, it is now down to us to make small changes that will ultimately have huge benefits to the environment.

Morwenna Davies

Image: Grantham Institute