Up to 12 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans each year. Residues of plastic are routinely found in fish, seabirds and marine mammals and last week it emerged that plastics have even been discovered in creatures living seven miles beneath the sea.
Responding to this depressing situation, Chancellor Philip Hammond is expected to make a Budget announcement calling for evidence on whether a tax on the most environmentally damaging single-use plastics would help. Such political leadership is welcomed, but is it sufficient? What are the five steps that need to be taken to fully address the problem?
1) Reduce and reuse
We need to reduce the amount of unnecessary single-use plastics. Campaign groups have started by targeting specific products such as plastic straws, which has already led to Wetherspoons committing to remove plastic straws from their pubs by January 2018. Councils including Fort Myers Beach Council in Florida are also banning straws and it is likely that they will be leading a growing momentum for change across society.
Promoting reusable containers needs to be at the core of this approach. Once again companies are starting to respond, with the high street chain Pret-A-Manger introducing filtered water stations to give customers the option of refilling a re-usable bottle rather than buying bottled water.
Lifestyle vloggers are spreading the message more widely, with vlogs such as this one providing tips on how people can phase out single-use plastic.
2) Demonstrate that waste plastics has a value
Plastic is everywhere in our lives because it is durable and light. These are great attributes for packaging, but are terrible when it gets into our rivers and oceans. We need to build awareness that waste plastic has a value, that it can be transformed into a variety of products and that we need to collect it for recycling rather than irresponsibly littering it into the environment.
In an attempt to do this Hubbub built a boat made out of 99% recycled plastic that will be used by children and businesses to fish plastics out of the waterways in London. The Plastic Fishing campaign will reduce litter and demonstrate that collected plastic can be turned into a variety of useful products.
3) Hard evidence is needed to see if deposit legislation will work
Introducing a charge on single-use carrier bags has been massively successful. Can the same approach work with bottles and other forms of packaging? Evidence from other European countries suggests that it can. The UK needs to quickly introduce credible trials to see whether it will work in this country.
Such trials will demonstrate whether deposit legislation can successfully collect packaging that would have been littered, or if it is an expensive and inefficient way to collect materials that would be recycled through existing local authority schemes.
4) Greater collaboration is required
Creating an effective way to recycle plastic requires collaboration between companies, the public sector and NGOs. Where this happens effectively, change can happen quickly. The collaborative Square Mile Challenge in London has already collected over 3 million disposable coffee cups for recycling.
This type of collaboration has to be long-term with business investing over a period of time, rather than one-off campaigns designed to get publicity over sustainable solutions.
5) There needs to be a strategy for ‘on the go’ litter
We are eating and drinking more on the move and inevitably this is leading to an increase in single-use packaging, drinks bottles and disposable coffee cups. Policy-makers have not responded to this trend and consequently, the infrastructure is not in place to collect and recycle these materials.
Addressing this challenge is going to be complex. Especially as local authority spending is being cut alongside a policy to ‘de-clutter’ our high streets. We desperately need a coherent strategy to deal with the problem and the answer is not to put in ad hoc systems responding to whatever is the latest media outcry.
Urgent action is needed to fight plastic pollution. A tax may well be a good starting point but it cannot work in isolation and needs to be supported by these other activities.