Plastic pollution has hit UK headlines again today as Prime Minister Theresa May has announced the Government’s 25 year environmental plan which includes a pledge to eradicate all ‘avoidable plastic waste’ in the UK by 2042.
The issue of plastic pollution has been climbing the public agenda for a while. In 2016, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation warned that there will be more waste plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 unless the industry changes significantly.
At the end of 2017 Blue Planet 2 showed us shocking footage of how our plastic waste is affecting sea creatures, fish and birds. Viewers witnessed a Hawksbill turtle get caught in a plastic sack (fortunately it was released by a camera operator), saw how microplastics are contributing to industrial pollution in marine life and were left heartbroken by a scene in which a pilot whale was filmed carrying her dead newborn, reluctant to let go, after it was possibly poisoned by pollution in the oceans.
Sir David Attenborough explained that it’s possible the calf was poisoned by its mother’s contaminated milk, in the same way that plastic is entering the human food chain when we eat fish from polluted waters.
The problem came a lot closer to home at the start of 2018, when China implemented their ban on waste imports – a move which is threatening to cause global panic. Previously China were the world’s largest recycler of scrap metals, plastic and paper, but last July they announced they were no longer willing to accept this waste.
The UK were exporting almost two-thirds of its total waste to China, with UK businesses shipping more than 2.7 million tons of plastic to China and Hong Kong since 2012.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen now, but it is clear that the problem with plastic can no longer be ignored.
Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, has described the ban as a “game changer for the UK” and urged the Government to invest in recycling plants and infrastructure.
Today the Government have announced their 25-year plan to improve the natural environment, including a pledge to eradicate all ‘avoidable plastic waste’ in the UK by 2042 – but the announcement has been met with mixed reactions.
In her speech, the Prime Minister called plastic waste “one of the great environmental scourges of our time” and said that in the UK alone we generate enough single-use plastic waste to fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls every year.
The announcement comes just days after the UK ban on microbeads came into effect.
Plastic microbeads are used in some cosmetic and beauty products, but because they’re added to rinse-off products like face scrubs, toothpaste and shower gel (for their exfoliating properties) they end up in the ocean.
The manufacturing of products containing microbeads has now been banned and a full ban on the sale of products containing microbeads will come into force in July this year.
The plan announced today includes confirmation that the current 5p charge for single-use plastic carrier bags will be extended to all retailers in England.
Charging first started in October 2015 to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags, but it currently only applies to retailers with over 250 employees.
The Government previously said extending the levy to small businesses would create too much of an “administrative burden” for the businesses, but have today announced plans to extend it to all shops.
The existing 5p plastic bag charge has been effective in changing consumer behaviour – reports in 2016 found that plastic bag use dropped by around 85% since the levy was introduced.
Earlier this week disposable coffee cups also hit the headlines as the environmental audit committee called for a 25p ‘latte levy’ to be charged on them.
In the UK 2.5bn coffee cups are thrown away each year – enough to stretch around the world 5 and a half times!
However disposable cups can’t be recycled by the normal systems because they have a tightly bonded polyethylene liner which is difficult to remove.
There’s only 3 specialist plants in the UK that can process them. As a result just 1 in 400 cups are recycled – less than 1%.
Overall the levy suggestion was welcomed by campaigners. The environment secretary is now considering proposals to encourage retailers to use fewer types of plastic and get councils to adopt a standardised recycling system.
Although the plastic bag levy has proven effective and hopes are that the ‘latte levy’ will have a similar effect if introduced, the suggested policies today are not entirely clear about what ‘avoidable plastic’ really is, and many campaigners say it is not weighty enough.
The plastic bag charges were a relatively ‘quick win’, but it is a one-sided approach focused on consumer behaviour.
To truly tackle the problem with plastic waste we need a joined up approach that pressures business, industry, Government and consumers to break their plastic habit and make lasting changes.
Markets respond to consumer demand so it makes sense to begin by changing consumer behaviour, but there are still many single-use plastic items causing problems.
Food packaging, plastic bottles, glitter and drinking straws have been under fire recently but it’s not yet clear how these elements will be tackled under the environmental policy.
Unfortunately it’s not as straightforward as simply banning plastic and replacing it with an alternative mateiral. Paper bags for example use more energy to create, are disposed of quicker and end up in landfill where they create greenhouse gases.
Supermarkets have recently come under fire for excess packaging on food (particularly fruit and vegetables), but plastic is needed for food wrap to preserve it. One supermarket trialled giving up plastic food packaging and found that food waste increased by 50% – which is also bad for the environment.
Traditionally food supply chains were shorter so food preservation was less of an issue, but as we have become accustomed to convenience shopping and moved away from seasonal eating our food miles have increased (which is a sustainability issue in itself) and protective plastic wrapping has become a necessary part of the process.
We should be aiming to reduce needless plastic where we can (some food packaging is more for aesthetic value than preservation and therefore unnecessary), and get out of the habit of using disposable plastic items like coffee cups and water bottles where reusable options exist – but surely the real issue is how we are going to process plastic and stop it polluting our oceans and environment?
Until we have a truly sustainable solution for dealing with plastic, outright banning it is not an effective solution because we may risk replacing it with an even less sustainable option or inadvertently making other issues worse.
When it comes to sustainability, nothing is simple.
Researchers at Cambridge University recently discovered caterpillars that are able to degrade plastic. The insects can break down the chemical bonds of plastic in a similar way to digesting beeswax – their usual food.
While this sounds like the ideal solution to eliminating global plastic waste, one caterpillar is able to get through about 2 milligrams of plastic per day.
The UK alone discards almost 2 million tonnes every year – which would require billions of caterpillars eating constantly.
Unfortunately, these bugs devastate bee colonies.
Bee populations are already under severe stress from many factors, including pesticides and habitat loss, and without bees for pollination, crop cultivation would be in big trouble.
So we solve one issue by breeding caterpillars that deal with our plastic waste, but cause another potentially devastating problem.
Plastic is so widely used because it is so cheap to produce and highly durable, but the qualities that make it appealing for so many uses are also the qualities causing the issues.
The truth we don’t really know how long plastic lasts – it hasn’t been around long enough to find out. Research suggests that some plastic may last up to 1000 years.
If we’re ever going to make sustainable alternatives and methods of processing plastic mainstream, we need to incentivise their development and find solutions that don’t create bigger problems elsewhere.
Plans have now been outlined for Government funding for plastics innovation, along with a commitment to help developing nations tackle pollution and reduce plastic waste, but again it’s not entirely clear at this stage what that will look like or how it will work.
There are already tax incentives available to businesses for research and development, but they’re not widely advertised and it’s not always clear what activities they do and don’t apply to.
The current plastic bag levy is donated to charity (after reasonable costs and VAT are deducted – and this is not a legal requirement) and the Charities Age Foundation has said that extending it could raise millions of pounds for good causes. Whilst this is valuable, it might have a more significant impact if the reinvestment in sustainable plastic disposal research was a legal requirement.
The environment was identified by a Tory think-tank as the key issue for young voters, but today’s announcement has been met with mixed reactions and scepticism about how much of the policy the environment department will actually be able to implement.
The Government has also come under fire today for the length of time they have suggested it will take to tackle the plastic problem – aiming to eliminate avoidable plastics by 2042.
25 years seems like a long time to implement these plans and people seem worried that without any legal weight behind the policies they may never come to fruition.
On the other hand this potentially could be the time it needs to develop a truly sustainable solution. Time will tell.
If a national regime to cut back on plastics went hand in hand with incentives and rewards for businesses and manufacturers that developed and adopted alternatives, surely we could achieve these environmental aims much sooner than 2042 in a truly meaningful way – by cutting out unnecessary plastic where we can and implementing a way to reuse, recycle and dispose of plastic without it polluting the planet.
Whilst it’s good that recent news headlines have brought sustainability agenda into the mainstream media and encouraged us as consumers to challenge and change our own unsustainable behaviours, we need to be mindful that we are not succumbing to ‘political greenwashing’ – a pushing of a popular agenda to harness the interest of a younger, sustainably-minded demographic of voters without any true impact behind it.
Plastic pollution cannot be a popularity competition. It is essential that it forms part of the political agenda, but real weight is required behind any policy to make sure that it is carried out in a meaningful way if we stand any chance of creating a more sustainable future.