Understand the issue: Plastic waste

Discover how plastic waste consumption impacts wildlife. 

The Big Issue: Plastic Waste, BBC Wildlife, June 2014.

Plastics are lightweight, durable and cheap. But many plastic products are destined for landfill when no longer required, and if they’re not disposed of correctly they can enter our seas.

Plastic represents a large proportion of marine debris, and is a growing problem that poses a huge threat to marine wildlife because the material can be mistaken for food and causes entanglement.

High concentrations of plastic material have been found blocking the breathing passages and stomachs of whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds.

This marine litter also accumulates on shorelines, where it pollutes beaches and other coastal habitats.



8.1bn The number of thin-gauge (single-use) bags used by supermarket customers in the UK in 2012.

267 The number of species known to have become entangled in, or ingested, marine debris.

76% The reduction in the use of plastic bags in Wales since a 5p levy was introduced in 2011.

18,000 The number of pieces of plastic floating on every km2 of ocean, according to a UN report in 2006. 



Richard Thompson Professor of Marine Biology, Plymouth University

“There is evidence that plastic waste harms marine life, but we can have the benefits of plastics without our litter later contaminating the oceans.”

Andy Cummins Spokesperson, Break The Bag Habit

“Using plastic for single-use products is almost criminal. Not many people know that a plastic bottle can take between 400 and 1,000 years to break down.”



1 Bag for life

Take a pledge to stop using single-use bags. Bring your own bags instead, made from natural, compostable materials, whenever you make a visit to the shops.

2 Avoid packaging

Don’t put your fruit and veg into plastic bags in the shop – choose loose produce – and pick items with minimal packaging. Some retailers including Tesco let you opt out of plastic bags for deliveries. 

3 Support the levy on plastic bags 

Join a campaign such as Break The Bag Habit, which supports the introduction of a levy on all single-use bags in England.

4 Community change

Encourage your own town, county, employer or school to become plastic-bag free.


Keep up-to-date with the latest wildlife news in BBC Wildlife Magazine.


We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here