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An ocean of plastic

September 17th, 2019
topics:Nature
by:Federica Tedeschi
located in:United Kingdom
tags:environment, Louise Edge, ocean, plastic bag, pollution, UK

Plastic carrier bags use in the UK has fallen by 90% since the 5p charge was introduced, according to a ‘Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ report published in July.

Data refer to the seven* biggest supermarket chains in the U.K., and it is possible to track a positive change in people’s behaviour starting on October 2015, when large retailers in England were required by law to begin charging 5p for all single-use plastic bags. 

Further details revealed that sales of plastic carrier bags by these retailers in 2018/2019 fell to 1.11bn - a 37 percent decline compared with the previous year.

The government has recently announced a range of measures to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste in its ‘Resources and Waste Strategy’, which includes a ban on microbeads, as well as a forthcoming ban on cotton buds and plastic straws from April 2020. Over 80 percent of people voted in support of the latter last year, and several restaurants chains across the U.K. have already adopted a paper-only straws policy.

Fairplanet met Louise Edge, head of the ocean plastics campaign at Greenpeace UK, to find out more about plastic consumption and pollution in the United Kingdom.

Ms. Edge has been working for the non-governmental environmental organisation since 2000, mainly focusing on issues related to plastics, oceans, and forests in the U.K. and in several other countries.

FairPlanet: Could you tell us more about the plastic pollution problem in the U.K. and any new relevant findings?

Louise Edge: There isn't much data out there on plastic as it is a relatively new science. Greenpeace took the biggest ever survey of microplastics in the U.K. earlier this year and results show that we have a real problem in the country. We found out that all of the rivers that we sampled were contaminated with microplastics and a lot of them were PET and forms of plastic that are used in packaging. Within this we found that the River Mersey is proportionally more contaminated than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is one of the big ocean giants people talk about, highly contaminated because of the currents bringing all the plastic into one spot in the ocean.

There's currently a lot of research coming through almost every week and more recently microplastics have been found in rainwater as well, which means there's a sort of soil contamination happening. So, as well as ending up in our food, whether seafood, salt or drinking water, microplastics have been inhaled. And we don't know what the impact on people is, yet.

How would you describe the most serious consequences of plastic pollution at present? 

We have plenty of data about oceans, where big pieces of plastic are capturing and sometimes drowning or strangling marine life like birds and turtles; also, laboratory tests have shown that when small pieces of plastic are eaten, they can make the creature feel full, so starvation is one route.

In other studies, they found that certain marine species mistake plastic for their natural food and actually show a preference for eating plastic, which is quite disturbing. And such a habit can make them more and more lethargic and altering their mating behaviour, too. 

Another alarming aspect is that plastic in the ocean can leach out the chemicals that have been used in its production, some of which are linked to hormone disruptors, for instance. 

But there's also a really curious phenomenon where the plastic actually attracts chemicals that are in the water body. So, things like DDT and PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) are banned because they are toxic and they've actually becoming attracted to the pieces of plastic and accumulating on them.

What is Greenpeace's next step in the short-medium term to tackle the issue? 

One of the key things for Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the WBS, and other groups is the Environment Bill, which is expected to lay out the environmental legislation that's going to happen for the next 20 years and to provide an environmental watchdog that will, in the event of Brexit, replace the European watchdog and be able to enforce the regulations.

So, we are calling for the government to set ambitious reduction targets for plastic in the Environment Bill: something in the region of a 50 percent cut in the use of single use plastic by 2025, which is a big, bold commitment on reduction.

The other big area we're focusing on is companies that are buying and using plastic; we're trying to get the regulations and the laws changed for them to stop phasing out plastic. We have conducted surveys of supermarkets as well as big consumer goods companies like Unilever, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, demanding them to go public with the amount and types of plastic they use and what their reduction policies and targets are. And that work is starting to have some traction: Coca-Cola are now public about the fact that 108 billion Coke logo bottles are put out every year.

But there's more to be done to ensure that they stop introducing anything to the market that cannot be recycled, and that they invest in reuse and refill. So, water fountains and soft drink fountains in the case of Coke and Pepsi, would be a possibility.

Do you think the Government is effectively addressing the plastic pollution problem? 

Absolutely not. The charge on single-use plastic bags in supermarkets really shows the impact that legislation can have and that the public will respond and actually reduce the use of plastic. But if you look at what the government has done so far, they've just been making lots of promises: bans on plastic straws, plastic buds and plastic stoves, all of which is positive. However, these things have a small part of the plastic pollution problem. One of the big issues is the plastic packaging that we get in supermarkets, which clearly isn't reducing. We're calling on the government to go further and really incentivise the reduction of packaging, because companies won't do it by themselves.

Is recycling plastic the ultimate solution to the problem?   

There's a misconception that making everything recyclable and improving recycling would fix the plastic problem. But if you look globally since plastic was invented, only 9 percent has been recycled. And that's for many reasons, like the lack of adequate infrastructure. Also, complex plastics can only be recycled so many times.

Meanwhile, the production of plastic is continuing to increase and it's still predicted to quadruple by 2050, so, that is why we're really emphasising that reducing and reusing plastic has to be the focus.

How does the U.K. compare to other European countries in terms of plastic pollution?

At the moment we don’t have accurate data to compare country to country. One thing I would say about comparison is that we and other groups have been calling for a deposit return scheme on bottles, which we already have in places like Germany.

That is one of the other big things that Greenpeace has been pushing for, over the last three years and the government has promised they will be going ahead with the project. It's like putting a charge on the bottle, that you get back when you bring it back. We know, for instance, that in Germany they got a 90 percent return rate on plastic bottles, whereas in the UK it is around 60 per cent; so, you can imagine what the benefit of a deposit scheme would be in this country.

*The seven biggest supermarket chains in the UK are: Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, The Co-operative Group, Tesco, and Waitrose.

The interview took place in the second half of August 2019.

Article written by:
Federica-Tedeschi
Federica Tedeschi
Author
Data refer to the seven* biggest supermarket chains in the U.K., and it is possible to track a positive change in people’s behaviour starting on October 2015.
The government has recently announced a range of measures to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste in its ‘Resources and Waste Strategy’.
We found out that all of the rivers that we sampled were contaminated with microplastics and a lot of them were PET and forms of plastic that are used in packaging.
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