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Global Recycling Day: the harmful lifecycle of single-use plastic bottles


Kate Veck from the University of London’s Sustainability Team explores the history of the plastic bottle and how we can be more sustainable, wherever we are in the world.

Monday 18 March is Global Recycling Day. To mark the occasion, we wanted to take a closer look into the ubiquitous plastic bottle.

Made from a material called polyethylene terephthalate or ‘PET’, for short, these bottles started to be used from the 1950s onwards (1). Plastic is an incredibly useful and durable material and revolutionised our way of living (2). However, it presents an enormous environmental problem.

Firstly, new PET plastic is made from fossil fuels or fracked natural gas, which means its production has a large carbon footprint, contributing to climate change (3). Approximately 75% of plastic bottles are not recycled after use and (according to the WWF (4)) therefore take around 450 years to biodegrade! To put that into context, if plastic bottles had existed at the time, bottles drunk by the likes of William Shakespeare, or Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who commissioned the Taj Mahal to be built in 1632) would still not be fully decomposed today.

A collection of plastic bottle

Why does it matter if plastic bottles still exist in our environment, rather than being recycled? Well, over time they turn into microplastics, which pollute our soils and oceans, and can enter the food chain – and us (5)! Our Earth is drowning in plastic.

Recycling still has lots of issues – it’s an energy-extensive process and contamination means a lot of bottles don’t manage to be reused. If you do need to drink from a single-use plastic bottle, ensuring you recycle it (if you can) is by far the best option at that point.

Recycling is a key part of something called the ‘Circular Economy’ – avoiding items from truly ever being deemed waste, and instead, keeping them in the loop by allowing them to be recycled into a new item.

What can you do to make a stand – wherever you are in the world?

  1. Follow the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle with single-use plastic bottles where possible. Any time we can avoid using a plastic product and opting for a more sustainable material, for example glass or aluminium, we are doing a good thing for our environment.
  2. Tell other people what you’ve learnt about plastic, such as your family and friends. The more of us who are aware of the problem, the more we can bring about meaningful change.
  3. Take action – write to companies and governments, making your voice heard about the need to phase out avoidable single-use plastic! Get involved with community initiatives too, for example litter picks, sharing schemes and repair cafes


  1. SMF -  The history of the plastic bottle.
  2. Science Museum: Age of plastic.
  3. Our World in Data: How much of global greenhouse gas emissions come from plastics?
  4. WWF Australia: The lifecycle of plastics
  5. ScienceDirect: Microplastics in human food.


Video: A brief history of plastic

Take 5 minutes out of your day to watch this informative video on the ‘A brief history of plastic.