The shocking pictures of devastation caused by plastic waste in newspapers and on David Attenborough’s recent Blue Planet II series have led many more of us to voice our growing concern for our planet. In January, the Government pledged to eradicate the use of all “avoidable plastic” in the next 25 years. This will be achieved partly by extending the 5p plastic bag charge – already introduced with huge success to supermarkets across Britain – to all shops across England. There are also proposals to tax throwaway cups and introduce a bottle deposit scheme: these have been operating for many years in Scandinavia and customers are charged extra for a drink in a re-usable bottle and get the money back when they return it.
How many of these initiatives will get the go-ahead in reality?. If most or all are put into practice, it will confirm that the government has finally got serious about plastic, instead of using it simply for positive spin.
One reason for us all to get serious about plastic waste is China’s recent ban on imports of “foreign waste”. Europe generates 25 million tonnes of plastic waste a year but only recycles about a third of it. Most of the rest used to be shipped to China – but now it needs to be disposed of in Europe and elsewhere. This has led to the EU aiming to significantly reduce the use of disposable plastic and microbeads. Plastic that doesn’t get recycled can end up in the sea, where it poses a significant risk to marine life.
The plastic waste problem is so bad that plastic now makes up 85 per cent of all beach litter, and plastic waste littering the ocean is set to treble within the next ten years if action is not taken. There is a huge pile of plastic waste floating in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and weighs around 80,000 tonnes, the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets and is more than twice the size of France in area. The plastic is from a variety of sources but includes household products and plastic bottles.
Chris Packham has called the Government’s 25 year plan to reduce plastic waste “embarrassing” in its vagueness and far-off targets. Packham said: “I’m not sure people fully appreciate that a bottle top dropped on a pavement in London or Manchester can so easily be washed into the English Channel, Irish Sea or Atlantic” and says the situation won’t change unless we take the matters of plastic waste and the environment into our own hands. “It is about do-it-yourself. And if we don’t do it, then we are just doing ourselves in.”
The Blue Planet II series has helped raise awareness about plastic pollution and people in Britain say they are far more aware of the problem matter than they were a year ago, according to research by the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign. Now 45 per cent of people sometimes try to avoid products packaged in plastic but 27 per cent rarely or never do. It’s not easy to avoid plastic packaging when you shop in major supermarkets and have to rush with the children in tow or when you’re on the way home and just need to eat.
Inspired by the success of the plastic carrier bag campaign, companies including Nestle, Coca Cola and Unilever have, alongside supermarkets, signed a “plastics pact”, supported by charity WRAP. The pledge means companies have committed to making all of their plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.
Campaign group A Plastic Planet is bidding to convince UK supermarkets that a Plastic Free Aisle would be both good for business and the environment. Providing a supermarket aisle featuring only goods sold in biodegradable packaging would make it quick and easy for us to reject goods laden with single-use plastic.
But until the supermarkets and brands reduce the plastic packaging they use for our groceries and produce, the best way for most people to easily cut their plastic footprint is to carry reusable coffee cups, shopping bags and water bottles – and not to use drinking straws, according to Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner Will McCallum.
And in the meantime when you have a piece of plastic in your hand to dispose of in the kitchen, remember that only a third of plastic waste is currently recycled in the UK. Putting plastic into your recycling bin means it stands the best chance of being recycled and reused, being made into new containers and packaging, fleece clothing or bin liners, and increasingly more permanent items are being made from the plastics you can recycle, including furniture, fencing, kerb stones, drainpipes, signage and automotive parts.
We can’t get rid of all plastics, and plastic remains a useful material. It’s not intrinsically harmful in its own right, the harm is caused by how we dispose of it. Plastic remains in circulation unless it’s burnt. So by recycling it into new products, at least it will still be in a place where it is being useful to us and potentially replacing wood, stone and other natural materials.
Around 100,000 marine animals and one million birds are killed each year due to either consuming or getting tangled in plastic waste. Nine out of ten seabirds are thought to have plastic in their stomachs, we don’t yet know the effects of eating fish containing plastic traces, and last week a whale was discovered in a Thai canal with eighty plastic bags weighing 8kg in its stomach.
So don’t think that you can’t make a difference on your own and that there is no point in recycling your plastics. If more of us recycle, and more recycling plants are developed in response to our need to recycle our own plastic waste, more plastic will be put to good use and controlled, instead of ending up in the seas.