World Environment Day 2020: Five surprising things you never knew contained plastic, from ribbon to tea bags

It's in far more than water bottles

Olivia Petter
Friday 05 June 2020 08:32

As the war on plastic rages on, it should come as no surprise that more of us are looking for ways to ditch the material for good.

Although coronavirus has somewhat taken over the news agenda in 2020, last year saw strides forward in plastic-free living.

Glastonbury Festival announced it had banned the sale of single-use plastic bottles for the first time in its 49-year history and the first plastic-free contact lens recycling scheme was launched in the UK in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste. The Plastic Free July movement was also growing, encouraging people to give up single-use plastics for one month (similar to Dry January).

According to research, Britain’s waterways are filled with plastic pollution, with up to 1,000 microplastics – small pieces of plastic – found per litre in the worst-polluted rivers.

Dr Christian Dunn, a wetlands researcher at Bangor University who conducted the research, warned that microplastics should be “considered a serious emerging contaminant” like pharmaceutical waste and pesticides.

But living a life free from plastics is harder than it sounds.

While using a reusable water bottle and swapping plastic straws for reusable alternatives are commendable feats, they’re only half the battle because it turns out plastic is hiding in far more day-to-day products than you might realise.

From glitter to tampons, here are five surprising thing you never knew contained plastic.

Sanitary products

That’s right, plastic is a primary material used in mainstream menstrual products.

It might not be in tampons themselves, which are usually made from cotton, but it’s likely to be included in the wrappings and applicators.

“It has been estimated that up to 90 per cent of a menstrual pad and six per cent of a tampon in plastic,” says Kate Metcalf, co-director at the Women’s Environmental Network.

“The rest of a pad is wood pulp and tampons are a mixture of cotton, rayon or a mix of both.”

Plastic tampon applicators and strings, she explains, are made from Polyethylene (PE) and Polypropylene (PP), both of which are the two main plastics found in our oceans.

“In the UK, the use of tampons, pads and applicators generates 200,000 tonnes of waste per year,” Metcalf tells The Independent.

“The great majority of these products end up incinerated – releasing toxic chemicals into our environment - or in landfill, but up to 8.5 per cent (18, 050 pieces) of sewage related debris, which includes menstrual products, finds its way onto Britain’s beaches.”

There are, however, plenty of sustainable, plastic-free alternatives on the market via companies such as Natracare, Hey Girls, TOTM, and OHNE.

Menstrual cups, which are usually made from silicon, are another popular eco-friendly option.


While you can now invest in different types of ribbon, such as luxury types that come in velvet, silk and satin, a lot of the affordable options you find in generic gift shops contain plastic.

You can, however, make your ribbon consumption more sustainable by simply reusing what you already have and saving it when you receive a gift wrapped in it the material.

Michael Gove talks about vow to cut out single-use plastic for Lent while using plastic cup

There are also plenty of eco-friendly and biodegradable alternatives on the market at sustainable gift packaging retailers, such as Little Cherry and Noble Pack.

Tea bags

Don’t fret, it’s not like every single cuppa contributes to ocean pollution. But certain tea bag brands do use polypropylene, which is a sealing plastic that holds the contents together.

In 2018, environmental group 38 Degrees launched a petition calling for major tea manufacturers, including Yorkshire Tea, Typhoo, and Tetley, to remove plastics from all of its tea bags, claiming that it is possible to use other biodegradable products instead.

The petition garnered more than 177,000 signatures and many of the brands have since revealed plans to produce plastic-free tea bags.

PG Tips launched a range of fully biodegradable tea bags in February 2018.

There are also other brands, such as Clipper and Pukka Herbs, that have been entirely free from plastic for years.

Faux fur

As more fashion brands ban fur from their collections, faux alternatives have surged, with popular brands like Shrimps making a name for themselves due to their colourful, and cruelty-free garments.

While fake fur might be a good idea from an ethical standpoint, it’s not necessarily advisable from a sustainability one, with MP Mary Creagh telling The Independent that fake fur garments are “often made entirely out of artificial fibres like polyester".

The most common form of polyester is polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic made from crude oil that’s also used to make ketchup bottles.

“Fashion tells us we can have anything we want, that we don’t want to kill animals to have our fur, but what they’re not telling us about is the carbon consequences of extracting the material for faux alternatives,” Creagh added.


It might look like an innocent sprinkling of joy, but glitter has the potential to cause serious damage to the environment because the majority of it is made from plastic.

At least, that was what scientists claimed in November 2017 when they called for the sparkly item to be banned due to its environmental impact.

“I think all glitter should be banned, because it’s microplastic,” said environmental anthropologist Dr Trisia Farrelly at the time.

Project to clean up the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" unable to collect plastic

“When people think about glitter they think of party and dress-up glitter, but glitter includes cosmetic glitters as well, the more everyday kind that people don’t think about as much.”

Glitter is a popular fancy dress staple, particularly among festival-goers. But with more than 60 UK festivals having vowed to ban glitter as part of an overall commitment to abolishing single-use plastic by 2021, that is likely to change.

But not all is lost for eco-conscious glitter fans, as some companies are making an effort to create sustainable alternatives, such as Eco Glitter Fun, a fully biodegradable glitter manufacturer.

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